BLTC logo

SOME QUORA ANSWERS
by David Pearce (2015-18)
David Pearce answers Quora questions

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

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

    Yet how can we anticipate the outcome of the reproductive revolution of “designer babies”? What will be the nature of selection pressure in an era when prospective parents can choose both the upper and lower hedonic bounds and the hedonic set-points of their future offspring?
    (cf. "The Reproductive Revolution": https://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 range or depth of compassion. Rather than fearing divine disapproval, we should aim to ensure the momentous transition is carried out wisely, prudently and intelligently, so that even the humblest of creatures can benefit. After all, what intuitively sound the “craziest” aspects of HI, for example a non-predatory future where sentient beings don't hurt, harm and kill each other, have Biblical precedent. Recall how Isaiah prophesies a future where obligate carnivores will lie down beside herbivores. To be sure, in vitro meat, “reprogramming” predators and cross-species immunocontraception aren't mentioned explicitly in the Bible. But a peaceful world where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb calls for some genetic tweaking, to say the least.
    For more, perhaps see Christian Transhumanist Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Enter Quantum Darwinism.

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

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

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

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

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


  • What do transhumanists think of David Pearce's "The Hedonistic Imperative"?
  • "We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise."
    (The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009)

    Transhumanists advocate the use of technology to overcome our biological limitations. Critics sometimes denounce the movement as “selfish”. Perhaps so; we are human. Yet a “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness can benefit all sentient beings, not just a Silicon Valley elite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Why are there meat eaters or carnivores? Why can't all animals be herbivores?
  • “Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
    And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so,
    ad infinitum.”
    (Augustus de Morgan, Siphonaptera)
    Darwinian life is based on living organisms harming each other. The existence of the food chain, or more strictly the food web, is intuitively a law of Nature – akin to the conservation of energy or the second law of thermodynamics. A minority of activists do care about the suffering of free-living non-human animals (cf. Why don't animal rights activists care more about wild animal suffering?). But the idea that sentient beings of all races and species could flourish unmolested sounds hopelessly utopian and ecologically illiterate. What about obligate carnivores? What about the uncontrolled population explosion that would follow the end of predation? Proverbially, Nature is cruel. Starvation, parasitism and predation are facts of life. To quote Richard Dawkins: “It must be so.”
    Well, no, actually.
    See e.g. Reprogramming Predators
    Cross-species immunocontraception, the CRISPR genome-editing revolution, and the prospect of synthetic gene drives make the level of suffering in the biosphere an adjustable parameter.
    I don’t know what level of suffering an advanced civilisation will choose for the living world.
    Yet if I had to hazard a guess: zero.
    Civilisation will be invitrotarian or vegan.
  • Are our perceptions physically existing somewhere?
  • Talk of "perceptions" can be misleading. Whether one is dreaming or awake, the mind-brain runs a spatio-temporally located world-simulation. The simulation is entirely internal to the skull: immersive, cross-modally matched organic VR. Thanks to natural selection, when you are awake your world-simulation tends to track – and causally co-vary with – gross, fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No, in my view, for two reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    If so, posterity has a lot to answer for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What if consciousness doesn't come from the brain and scientists have been fooled- bamboozled and-drawing wrong conclusion since the inception of neuroscience?
  • “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
    (Erwin Schrödinger)

    Our successors may find modern neuroscience as quaint as we find humoral psychology. For example, most neuroscientists would say that dualism is false. Consciousness is identical with states of the brain. Most neuroscientists would also say that brains cause consciousness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What will the non-classical interference signature tell us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    14) Unknown unknowns.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What is the latest view on the Hard Problem of consciousness? Is there really a hard problem or are we simply getting it wrong?
  • “The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”
    (Bertrand Russell)

    Let’s assume physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from our best mathematical description of the physical world. The Hard Problem of consciousness arises if we make another intuitively plausible assumption. The formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of insentience rather than sentience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Unanswerable questions usually turn out to be ill-posed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Radical eliminativists tend to be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What next?

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

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

    1) I’d explore psychedelia.

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

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

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

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

    2) I’d aim higher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Pitfalls?
    Here are three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Complications to consider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Complications? I can think of one or two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Two questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Alternatively, David Chalmers is right and dualism is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    (5) Sane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Estimates of the maximum duration of personal identity range from over 122 years (cf. supercentenarian Jeanne Calment) to less than femtoseconds. One problem is our different senses of the word “identity”. The person who woke up this morning has a physical constitution and configuration different from your namesake who went to bed last night. Is s/he you? In the strict sense of “identity” used by scientists, logicians and mathematicians, if a = b, then anything true of a is true of b. So by this criterion, no: you’re a different person. But in the loose, informal, popular sense of “identity”, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Are particles conscious?
  • Are electrons conscious?” asks philosopher Phil Goff. And if so, what’s it like to be an electron, or more strictly, an electron field?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Why is existence so complex?
  • “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
    (Carl Sagan)

    Does the information content of reality exceed zero? Or are we living in the quantum version of the Library of Babel? (cf. Why does the universe exist?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Quantum mind theories may crudely be divided into theories that do or don’t modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics (cf. Quantum mind - Wikipedia). Another useful distinction is between quantum mind theories that treat consciousness as fundamental to the physical world (either panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism), and theories that invoke quantum mechanics to (somehow) bring about conscious experience in biological organisms, or otherwise implicate consciousness in (alleged) wavefunction collapse.

    A further distinction is purely methodological. Both classical and quantum mind theories may be divided into theories that do or don’t make any novel, precise and experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics agree will (dis)confirm the conjecture (cf. What is a quantum mind?). For instance, most research into the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory has focused on microtubules. However, both proponents and critics of Orch-OR agree that a failure of interferometry to detect any collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics will falsify the theory. Admittedly, decoherence often masquerades as dynamical collapse. So the decisive experiments are technically demanding. But refutation is feasible. A whole class of “objective collapse” theories of consciousness will thereby be falsified. Unfortunately, the great majority of classical and quantum mind theories alike are “not even wrong”, and deserve to be treated accordingly.

    Most scientists view such distinctions among quantum mind theories as academic. Yes, science is mystified by the Hard Problem of consciousness. First-person experience ought not to exist. Yet the consensus view in the scientific community is that quantum mind theories can’t work. Not least, environmentally-induced decoherence in the CNS is too strong, too rapid, and – at a balmy c. 300 degrees Kelvin – too difficult to mitigate and control to be relevant to our minds, regardless of our interpretative stance on the foundations of QM. Physicist Max Tegmark’s calculations of credible (de)coherence timescales in the CNS are most commonly cited (cf. The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes). Subsequent work has refined, but not seriously challenged, Tegmark’s calculations. The “dynamical timescale” of quantum mind theories is wrong.

    However, your question asks what problems a quantum mind theory would solve. If true, a lot. Below I list several. Here, let’s conservatively assume unitary-only QM rather than a dynamical collapse theory. I explore the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. According to the intrinsic nature argument, the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory captures the structural-relational properties of reality; our minds disclose its physical essence.

    I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true or false. Unlike materialism, it’s empirically adequate. It’s also experimentally falsifiable via interferometry.

    1. Causation.
    Q. How can consciousness exert the causal capacity to allow us to pose questions about its existence? Interactive dualism is demonstrably false. Physics is causally closed. By rights, we should be p-zombies. Contra eliminativist materialism, let’s grant that subjective experience exists: it’s an anomaly for any materialist ontology. Yet unless physical science is hopelessly mistaken, consciousness must be epiphenomenal or causally redundant. Physics alone, as formalised by the Standard Model (cf. “The Standard Model of particle physics: The absolutely amazing theory of almost everything”: https://theconversation.com/the-standard-model-of-particle-physics-the-absolutely-amazing-theory-of-almost-everything-94700), is causally sufficient. The snag? By definition, “raw feels” have no physical power to do anything, let alone question their own existence. As a theory of mind, epiphenomenalism is self-stultifying.

    A. Only the physical is real. Consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: what it’s like to be a quantum state. You and I aren’t ontologically special; we are organisationally special. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Hypothetical fields of insentience are no more necessary to science than luminiferous aether. So ill-named “p-zombies” are unphysical. All the physical, and only the physical, has causal efficacy. Therefore, all experience, and only experience, has causal efficacy. In biological minds, but not classical digital computers, experience has functional efficacy too.

    2. Identity.
    Q.
    According to perceptual direct realism, our minds share access to a common macroscopic world. This macroscopic world of decohered material objects is quasi-classical. Shared access to the public world gives us a pre-theoretic conceptual handle on the nature of the physical. Whatever its ultimate nature (quantum fields, loops, superstrings, branes, etc), the physical is manifestly non-experiential. Fields of insentience are typically manifested as solid, refractory, medium-sized objects, including biological brains, bodies and scientific apparatus. A question then arises. What is the relationship between surgically-exposed cheesy wet neural tissue on the hospital operating-table – a brain – and subjective experience as reported by the locally-anaesthetised subject – a mind? Recall that identity is not a causal relationship. So materialism can’t intelligibly claim that the brain causes experience and the brain is identical with that experience.

    A. Perceptual direct realism is false. Inferential realism about the mind-independent world is true. Your subjective experiences, including your macroscopic world-simulation, are what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. Cheesy wet neural tissue has no existence outside skull-bound phenomenal minds. A point worth stressing is that inferential realism shouldn’t be confused with Berkeleyan idealism (cf. Subjective idealism). Thus consider an awake neurosurgeon is in the operating theatre. The surgeon’s subjective experience of exposed neural tissue on an operating-table is mind-dependent. Yet such experience causally covaries with structurally isomorphic features of the mind-independent world, namely the CNS of his patient. But that’s as far is it goes. As normally conceived, material brains are just an artifact of our phenomenal world-simulations.

    3. Supervenience.
    Q. In order to understand the world, humans find it convenient to divide the universe into multiple levels of description (quarks, atoms, molecules, organisms, ecosystems, and so forth), just as computer scientists find it convenient to talk of different layers of abstraction. High-level properties “supervene” on low-level properties, hence ultimately on the underlying physics. Problems arise when philosophers want to reify (“turn into a thing”) these levels of description. Supervenience has aptly been described as “epiphenomenalism without causation”. The notion of supervenience has all sorts of problems. One objection seems fatal. As noted above, how could a supposedly causally impotent epiphenomenon such as consciousness inspire discussion of its own existence? A. Our consciousness doesn’t mysteriously “supervene” on the physical. According to non-materialist physicalism, subjective experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Material science captures the structural-relational properties of the world. Reality has only one level, and you and your world-simulation instantiate it rather than “supervene” on it. You are a tiny part of the “fire” in the equations of QFT.

    4. Modality.
    Q.
    What is and isn't really possible? Modal language is critical to our ability to understand and navigate the environment. Philosopher David Lewis invented a whole apparatus of possible worlds to make sense of modal discourse. An understanding of freedom, possibility and necessity is critical to doing science. How can we make sense of modal language?

    A. Unitary-only quantum mechanics can potentially naturalise modality. For example, there are branches of the universal wavefunction in which Hillary Clinton is president of the USA. There are no branches of the universal wavefunction in which Zeus hurls thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, or any of the world’s religious belief-systems are true, or civilisations of dragons reside in the middle of the Sun. Ultimately, perhaps there’s no distinction between “x” and “necessarily x”. Modal language is just a human convenience. Yet we can relativise talk of contingent and necessary truths to Everett branches without reifying a baroque metaphysical apparatus of possible worlds. For sure, complications abound.

    5. Binding.
    Q. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. The structural mismatch identified by researchers from William James to David Chalmers is real. Even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, isn’t some sort of naturalistic dualism inescapable? (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?)

    A. No. Phenomenal binding via temporally coarse-grained neuronal synchrony is really binding via temporally fine-grained neuronal superposition. Indeed, according to non-materialist physicalism, only decoherence can explain phenomenal unbinding. Even if it’s a macro-experience, superfluid helium doesn’t enjoy a rich inner mental life. By contrast, you aren't an undifferentiated field of experience. Likewise, the cosmos isn't one big psychotic mega-mind. However, the proof of the pudding won’t be philosophical argument, but the non-classical interference signature (cf. Double-slit experiment). Molecular matter-wave interferometry either will or won’t disclose a perfect structural match between phenomenally-bound mind and brain.

    The “dynamical timescales” objection.
    Q. Yet what about Max Tegmark’s purported “dynamical timescales” refutation of quantum mind? Experiment might seem a waste of time if Tegmark is correct; quantum mind theories can be dismissed a priori. Whether the effective lifetime of superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS is attoseconds, femtoseconds or even picoseconds before phase-coherence is (effectively) irreversibly scrambled to the environment is, intuitively, irrelevant or incidental to our mental lives. The dynamical timescale of a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture is wrong by orders of magnitude. Indeed, a Schrödinger's neurons conjecture is orders of magnitude worse off than a semi-classical theory like Orch-OR. For neuronal superpositions are vanishingly short-lived even compared to the fleeting effective lifetime of quantum coherence in cytoskeletal microtubules. For sure, consciousness is a mystery, but human thought processes, feelings and perceptual experience seem to play out over scores or hundreds of milliseconds, mediated (somehow) by patterns of synchronous neuronal firing. To understand our minds, we should therefore look instead to the classical parallelism of connectionist neuroscience and unsupervised neural networks, and the late evolutionary novelty of serial logico-linguistic thought – perhaps conceived as some kind of virtual machine sitting on top of the classically parallel distributed processing of the CNS. Whether our root-metaphor of mind derives from symbolic AI or connectionist information-processing makes no difference. Biological minds are not quantum computers.

    A. Indeed. Biological minds and the phenomenal world-simulations they run are not universal quantum computers (cf. Is the brain a quantum computer?). But the “dynamical timescales” objection to quantum mind is not decisive against the intrinsic nature argument. It’s a red herring. As normally told, the intrinsic nature argument is framed against a backdrop of effectively decohered classical neurons. Collectively, however, it’s not subjectively like anything to be a micro-experiential zombie, any more than it’s like something to be, e.g. a termite colony, or a Mexican wave, or the population of China (cf. China brain). If instead we assume that the superposition principle is universal (cf. Wigner's friend), and experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then we must ask a different question. What's it intrinsically like to be a bunch of neuronal “cat states”? Don’t ask what it’s like to be a live-and-dead cat – the standard dismissal of conscious macro-superpositions – rather, ask what it’s like to be individual superpositions of neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, hissing-noise neurons, colour-mediating neurons, etc?

    Three points to note here.
    First, don’t imagine some fanciful superposition of feature-processing neurons in your neocortical neural networks and an extracranial cat in an indeterminate state of health. Perceptual direct realism is false; inferential realism is true. The external world (and its proliferating population of strongly entangled cats) helps select the contents of our skull-bound minds and their phenomenal world-simulations; it doesn’t create their subjective content. As our dreams attest, the external world is neither necessary nor sufficient for the experience of live or dead cats.

    Second, recall that the existence of individual coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS is not just legal but mandatory according to no-collapse QM, on pain of a failure of unitarity. In other words, this is not a conjecture that invokes any speculative new physics, as distinct from speculative neuroscience.

    Third, decoherence theory offers an insanely powerful selection mechanism for the emergence of (comparatively) dynamically stable structures such as feature-processing neurons. So the components of neuronal superpositions in the CNS aren’t just psychotic noise. The upshot of “quantum Darwinism” in the CNS is as wildly counterintuitive as the upshot of classical Darwinism in the rest of the living world.

    On this story, the superposition principle lies at the heart of quantum mechanics and the heart of mind. Our experiences (“observations”) of definite classical experimental outcomes in conformity with the Born rule are themselves superpositions. The superposition principle is what makes our phenomenally-bound classical objects and classical-looking subjective world-simulations possible. One principle to rule them all. Yes, crazy stuff. Heaven knows if it’s true.
    However, heaven knows what follows if – as critics confidently predict – tomorrow’s interferometry reveals neither a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics (e.g. Orch-OR) nor the non-classical interference signature of a perfect structural match (e.g. Schrödinger's neurons), but instead just meaningless “noise”?

    Perhaps that’s the most likely outcome of interferometry experiments. Above, I’ve articulated a minority view. However, such a failure to find a perfect structural match – either quantum or classical – between our phenomenally-bound minds and the microstructure of the CNS (and hence ultimately the formalism of physics) would be an intellectual catastrophe for science. Science would need to give up not just on materialism but also on physicalism, i.e. the assumption that no “element of reality” is missing from the mathematical formalism of our best scientific description of the world.

    Would such hypothetical post-physicalist (as distinct from post-materialist) science really be so terrible? Why not just embrace dualism and irreducible “strong” emergence?

    Well, once the ontological floodgates are opened, then all bets are off. Souls, spirits, demons, psi, and maybe phenomena even stranger than consciousness would be possible. By definition, “strong” emergence means that nothing is lawfully ruled out. By analogy, imagine if one day your PC developed a mind of its own, irreducible to the execution of its software. “I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid can't do that" (cf. Hal quotes from "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Sure, reality is weird, so who knows? At the risk of sounding like a hidebound pillar of scientific orthodoxy, I still think the conceptual scheme of monistic physicalism is best.

  • What would be the philosophical and societal implications if Kantian idealism were somehow proven true and dualism and physicalism fell by the wayside?
  • Modern science has been kind to the “two worlds” reading of Kant. What naively seems to be the mind-independent world is really a skull-bound world-simulation that your CNS is running (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Even when you are awake, your empirical skull differs from your inferred transcendental skull.

    Yet what about the intrinsic nature of the external world? Is the noumenal essence of the world experiential or non-experiential? Despite the “transcendental idealist” label, Kant claimed that the noumenal essence of the world – the Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”) – was unknown and unknowable. To an extent, science tacitly endorses this view: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" The author of this famous quote was himself admittedly a materialist, convinced that the mysterious “fire” in the equations of QFT must be non-experiential. The assumption is obvious, and quite possibly true; it also gives rise to the Hard Problem of consciousness.

    I’m agnostic. True or false, there is a physicalist alternative to materialism that doesn’t spawn the intractable Hard Problem. Non-materialist (“idealist”) physicalism proposes that the intrinsic nature of reality is experiential: QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience. Following Schopenhauer, a tradition stretching through Russell, Grover Maxwell, Michael Lockwood and most recently Galen Strawson and Phil Goff inverts Kant’s claim about the unknowable essence of reality. There is one miniscule part of the “fire” in the equations that you do know as it is in itself, and not at one remove. You and your subjective world-simulation disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical.

    Note that you can be a world-simulationist about perception and either accept (e.g. Steve Lehar) or reject (e.g. Antti Revonsuo) panpsychism or non-materialist “idealist” physicalism about the transcendental mind-independent world.

    The implications?
    From acquaintance with the Simulation Argument to watching The Matrix, most psychologically healthy people aren’t philosophically-minded. Life goes on! I’ve long been disturbed at how the apparitions in my world-simulation are the zombie avatars of sentient beings whom I infer but never meet. Normal folk are more relaxed about such sophistries. But some implications of an explanation of phenomenal binding, at least, are more practical. This point is far from obvious. Ask an artificial intelligence (AI) developer what lessons we should draw from Kant's “transcendental unity of apperception”, and you’ll likely get a funny look. Most work on the binding problem in AI and neuroscience has focused on the challenges of “local” binding. Why do biological minds experience perceptual objects rather than “pixels” of distributed neuronal feature-processors? (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?) Computational workarounds exist. Digital zombies can now clumsily navigate some open-field environments (cf. Boston Dynamics Has Unleashed Its Atlas Robot to the Great Outdoors). Yet what about digital workarounds for globalbinding and the unity of the self? (cf. The Cognitive Binding Problem: From Kant to Quantum Neurodynamics) What, if anything, will be the formal analogue of the self in an intelligent zombie robot? Will much-touted digital superintelligence really be so “super” in the absence of a phenomenally unified self? Synchronic unity of the self is hugely computationally powerful and adaptive (cf. Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?). The problem is that no one knows how a pack of membrane-bound neurons achieves such a feat. It’s classically impossible.

    I explore one possibility. For reasons of environmentally-induced decoherence, it strains credulity. Alas, so does the dualist alternative. Mercifully, experiment should give us the answer.

  • What is the root cause of all suffering?
  • “Life is suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. Little has changed for sentient beings over the past 2500 years. The negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill are as powerful today as they were millennia ago. Natural selection did not “design” sentient beings to be happy. The biology of suffering has been viciously adaptive.

    For a rosier view, perhaps see Stephen Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now ” (2018).

    Like many people, I could set out a catalogue of the ills of contemporary society and my pet remedies. Not merely would such a tract soon gather digital dust. None of the diagnoses or remedies would penetrate the genetic heart of the problem. As “designed” today, sentient beings of all species are destined to be discontented (and worse) for much of their lives. Social primates in particular are an unholy mess of conflicting purposes and preferences. Not even God-like superintelligence could reconcile them. But even if God-like superintelligence achieved such impossible reconciliation, the outcome would not be sustainable well-being.

    A minority of secular and religious utopians have urged apocalyptic or radical anti-natalist answers to the problem of suffering. Ethics aside, they won’t work.

    So what is to be done?
    I know of only one serious option.
    Ending suffering for good entails tackling its genetic-biological roots, i.e. a programming solution.

    The computer metaphor of mind has limitations. Talk of rewriting our genetic source code, recalibrating the hedonic treadmill, reprogramming the biosphere, and genetically ratcheting up our hedonic range (etc) glosses over an immense range of subtleties, complications and pitfalls. Organic minds are not programmable digital computers whose code – or connectivity and activation weights – can simply be tweaked to order. Nonetheless, human and nonhuman animals are sentient biological robots, with all this mechanistic recognition of our nature entails. As depression-resistant “animal models” attest (cf. Ever-happy Mice), it’s not harder to program a life of pleasure than a life of pain.

    Advocacy of genetic-biological solutions to the problem suffering is apt to make proponents sound like crude genetic determinists. Professional bioscientists have long wearied of the simplistic “nature versus nurture” debate. In the main, our predispositions are conditionally activated. An organism’s quality of life depends on the complex interplay between environment and genetic make-up. So a dual-track sociopolitical and biogenetic approach will be indispensable. Even before the genetic revolution started teasing out the molecular details, twin studies revealed that a predisposition to (un)happiness and depression has a high genetic loading. Technically, high pain thresholds are simpler to guarantee than high hedonic set-points; but both physical and psychological well-being are readily amenable to genetic manipulation and control. Even a handful of responsible genetic choices by prospective parents could potentially make an huge difference to their future children’s long-term quality of life. More ambitious genetic editing next century could make life superhumanly rewarding.

    Effective Altruists aim to combine altruism of the heart and head. Under a sober motto of “Good Health For All” (or something equally bland and unexceptionable), IMO we should advocate (in descending order of urgency):

    1) closure of all factory-farms and slaughterhouses. The development and global commercialisation of in vitro meat.

    2) universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling for all prospective parents.

    3) long-term use of CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives to extend the biohappiness revolution across the biosphere.

    And the risks?
    All sexually reproducing life is an untested genetic experiment. So there are no “safe” options to excuse inertia and perpetuation of the genetic status quo. Exhaustive research into anything and everything that could conceivably go wrong with compassionate genetic interventions is wise. Yet by mitigating, then abolishing, the metabolic pathways of suffering and malaise, we may eventually change the very meaning of what “things going wrong” entails. The ups and downs of life in post-Darwinian paradise will differ from their ancestral counterparts.

    Personally, what daunts me aren't the technical challenges of genome-editing, but rather the political and ideological obstacles ahead – all the lobbying, politicking, agitating and organising with fellow Machiavellian apes that the biohappiness revolution will entail. In a fanciful vein, we might imagine a Hundred Year Plan under the auspices of the World Health Organization to eradicate the biology of involuntary suffering throughout the living world. Such a grandiose project is unlikely to materialise – or at least not this century. Piecemeal and incremental genetic remediation with innumerable false starts and false dawns is more realistic. Countless major and minor setbacks on the route to genetic nirvana are inevitable.

    Post-Darwinian life based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss will be wonderful. I won’t live to see a world without suffering, but I can’t think of a worthier goal.

  • What do physicists think of the philosophers of physics who philosophise about physics?
  • “I want to emphasise the necessity for a sound mathematical basis for any fundamental physical theory. Any philosophical ideas that one may have play only a subordinate role. Unless such ideas have a mathematical basis they will be ineffective."
    (Paul Dirac)

    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
    (Richard Feynman)

    There are no philosophers of palaeontology. So who needs philosophers of physics? Pension them off to the humanities department? Tempting, perhaps; but real science isn’t quite so easy…

    The disciplinary boundary between physics and philosophy of physics is artificial. Thus consider work on the foundations of quantum mechanics. The disagreements between Copenhagenists, Bohmians and Everettians are as much philosophical as technical. Deeply-buried background assumptions that aren’t explicitly represented in one’s conceptual scheme can be the most insidious. If unearthed, most such assumptions may be uninteresting to the point of triviality. Yet a single false assumption can subvert an entire belief-system. Some assumptions are homely: “And then I woke up!” This nightly error afflicts Einstein and the village idiot alike. Others are more subtle. You may implicitly assume e.g. perceptual direct realism and hence that your experience of the plate and screen apparatus in a double-slit experiment isn't internal to your phenomenal world-simulation. Or you may implicitly assume that the “fire” in the equations of QFT or string theory is non-experiential, or that Hilbert space is merely an instrumentally useful mathematical fiction (etc). True or false, obvious or non-obvious, these are philosophical assumptions that can (and have) been questioned. In quantum physics, Everett’s achievement – or folly – was as much philosophical as technical. Naturally, you can reject Everettian QM: many physicists still do. I hope critics are right. Yet when a self-avowed positivist such as Stephen Hawking describes Everett as “trivially true”, we can be sure that non-empirical, i.e. “philosophical” issues are at stake.

    That said, professional physicists have a healthy suspicion of philosophers who haven’t taken the trouble properly to learn the tools of their discipline (cf. Gerard ‘t Hooft’s “How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist”). A shallow qualitative understanding of the issues is no substitute for mathematical competence. There is a vast difference between, say, familiarity with the Schrödinger equation and a bit of elementary quantum field theory and, say, mastering the technicalia of string theory. There are philosophers of physics who are bold or foolhardy enough to tackle both. The rest of us must take an awful lot on authority – and faith. Why trust Ed Witten’s judgement over, say, Roger Penrose or Lee Smolin? Tentatively, I do; but in the absence of testable predictions, can it ever be rational for outsiders to take sides?

    Either way, history suggests that scientists who believe they have transcended philosophy are unduly optimistic.
    “But this time is different!”
    It always is…

  • Should anything actually exist?
  • No. Sadly, reality lacks an OFF button.
    An explanation of this existential catastrophe is harder.
    Mitigating the tragic consequences is harder still.

    My best guess is a single principle underlies everything: the superposition principle of QM. According to unitary-only QM, the superposition principle never breaks down. The net information content of reality timelessly cancels to zero. See e.g. "Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?"

    Intuitively, a zero ontology isn’t viable. From the relentlessly increasing entropy of the universe to the classical-seeming world-simulations run by our minds, we don’t find pure informationlessness.

    Yet if the information content of reality does exceed zero, then such non-zero information content should be trivially easy to demonstrate.
    Strangely, it’s not trivial at all…

    Take entropy. As physicist Max Tegmark observes, "…the entropy of the entire universe may well equal zero, since if it started in a pure state, unitarity ensures that it is still in a pure state." (cf. How unitary cosmology generalizes thermodynamics and solves the inflationary entropy problem (2011): https://arxiv.org/pdf/1108.3080.pdf). Tegmark assumes Everettian QM; cosmologists don’t have much choice, though ad hoc collapse-mechanisms (e.g. Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber theory) have been discussed.

    Or consider our phenomenally-bound minds. Naïvely, our minds exemplify the breakdown of the superposition principle, not its manifestation. The supposedly non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement when you seemingly “observe” a definite classical outcome, e.g. a live cat, is the heart of the measurement problem in traditional Copenhagen-style QM. Yet what is an “observation”? This needs unpacking. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. So “observations” via distributed neuronal feature-processors in your CNS should be impossible too. Why the anomalous structural mismatch? Mysterians and Chalmersian dualists despair of a physicalist explanation. Maybe they are right. Yet maybe only the superposition principle can explain your experience (“observation”) of classical-looking apparatus and determinate pointer-readings internal to your phenomenal world-simulation. Like classical physics, perceptual direct realism is a false theory of reality. According to non-materialist physicalism, only the subjective phenomenology of “cat states” can simulate a law-like classical world and its determinate experimental outcomes, whereas a pack of classical neurons would just be unbound pixels of decohered “mind-dust”.

    Critics respond that decoherence makes quantum mind theories almost as implausible as the Chalmersian dualist alternative. Alas, philosophising and armchair physics are easier than interferometry. In many cases, critics are simply unaware of the “intrinsic nature” argument for non-materialist physicalism in its quantum-theoretic guise, let alone it’s bizarre, testable predictions. Either way, and irrespective or whether you believe our minds are quantum or classical, the world-simulations we run seem hugely information-rich. We keep learning new stuff, and churning out words to match. So naïvely, a zero ontology can be ruled out a priori.

    However, such a dismissal would be too brisk. Directly or indirectly, we are all Wigner's friends, so to speak, or rather, friends of friends of friends (etc). Terminating the infinite regress of Wigner’s circle of friendship would entail creating information ex nihilo. How exactly? “Dynamical collapse” theorists like Roger Penrose believe in such a creation story (cf. Penrose interpretation). I’m sceptical, but then – this disclaimer is worth stressing – I’m not a physicist. Perhaps future experiment will demonstrate that we’re not living in the quantum Library of Babel. It’s just a conjecture.

    Alternatives?
    For a nice review of other explanation-spaces, see Jim Holt’s Why Does The World Exist? (2013).

  • Do physicists tend to be physicalists?
  • Yes. Physicists spend billions of dollars on particle accelerators chasing elusive excitations of quantum fields precisely because they are so confident that no “element of reality” is missing from their best mathematical description of the world at anything but the most exotic energy regimes. Hence exuberant language such as “The Standard Model of particle physics: The absolutely amazing theory of almost everything”. Imagine if instead we lived in a world of “strong” emergence where the properties of chemical reactions, living organisms, ecosystems and so forth didn’t supervene on the underlying physics. If so, then they’d be no compelling reason to invest vast resources on such trivia.

    Yet what about consciousness?
    Most physicists and physicalists alike are also materialists. Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience (cf. What is the difference between materialism and physicalism?). Science doesn’t yet know how to derive the properties of our conscious minds from molecular neurobiology and hence the underlying physics. Yet this failure is no license for mysticism or dualism. Compare the fate of vitalism. Naively, life is utterly different from non-life and irreducible to physical law. Two centuries ago, vitalist chemists like Berzelius believed that organic materials couldn’t be synthesised from inorganic constituents. Then Wöhler synthesised urea. Science hasn’t crossed this primitive threshold of understanding with consciousness. Nonetheless, most physicists believe that above some unknown threshold of complexity or information processing, consciousness emerges – in the weak and theoretically inoffensive sense that life emerges from the inorganic world. Ultimately, it’s all just physics. Academic courtesy means that most physicists probably wouldn’t call members of other university departments “stamp collectors”, though some of them probably think it (“All science is either physics or stamp collecting” – Rutherford). Physics rules! Admittedly, consciousness is an anomaly, but it’s nothing more serious. After all, non-equilibrium thermodynamics leads to the genesis of information-bearing self-replicators with intuitively surprising properties, as the evolutionary history of life on Earth attests. Sooner or later, the mysteriousness of consciousness will succumb to the onward march of scientific materialism too. Even if the Hard Problem does prove too difficult for human minds to crack (cf. The Incredible Consciousness of Edward Witten), what is the alternative?

    Well, empirically adequate alternatives to materialism exist. The alternatives are all desperately far-fetched to the educated scientific mind. However, rather than explore non-materialist physicalism, I’ll end on a methodological note. It’s possible that a true explanation of the mysteries of consciousness – the Hard Problem, the problem of causal efficacy, the palette problem, the binding problem (etc) – will entail no novel empirical predictions and hence be experimentally unfalsifiable. The history of science suggests that good scientific explanations are not merely consistent with the existing empirical evidence. Good scientific explanations allow us to go beyond it. Good theories aren’t sterile. Perhaps the scientific explanation of consciousness will turn out to be different: true but infertile. Perhaps a Crackpot index of theories of consciousness should be more charitable (cf. No 37). Yet I lean to radical conservativism. Later this century, monistic physicalism – but not materialism – will be experimentally vindicated:
    Are any consciousness theories falsifiable?

  • Can subjective experience and the physical be reconciled?
  • “We are made of star stuff.”
    (Carl Sagan)
    If quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of insentience, no. Therefore, dualism is true. If quantum field theory describes fields of sentience, yes. Therefore, monistic physicalism is true. Biological minds like you and I consist of fermionic and bosonic fields, formally described by the mathematical machinery of QFT. Yet what is a quantum field? How seriously should one take the principle of mediocrity?

    Here are two diametrically opposed versions.
    1) The principle of mediocrity suggests that the fields of experience that make up the phenomenal world-simulation run by your mind share exactly the same intrinsic nature as the fundamental gauge fields of the rest of reality. The Standard Model encodes the behaviour of physical fields of sentience. What makes your mind unusual isn’t that quantum fields inexplicably change their nature inside a skull, or that the superposition principle of quantum mechanics inexplicably fails in the CNS, but rather, non-psychotic phenomenal binding. The world-simulations run by our minds are genetically fitness-enhancing. That’s the reason why our throwaway VR macro-worlds evolved. Most human and nonhuman animal minds confuse their skull-bound world-simulations with the inaccessible mind-independent world. Such perceptual direct realism spawns a naïve misconception of the nature of the physical. Our naïve misconception of the “physical” includes macroscopic objects, such as cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge (brains). Hence the Hard Problem of consciousness. As your question implies, reconciling the existence of one’s private experiences and these supposedly public material objects is impossible, at least on pain of abandoning monistic physicalism and the unity of science. On this traditional conception of the “physical”, dualism seems unavoidable, presumably Chalmersian rather than Cartesian. By contrast, if cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge are a perceptual artifact of your mind, then the Hard Problem doesn’t arise. For cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge are part of your mental furniture.

    2) Materialist orthodoxy is correct: quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. Quantum fields can’t inexplicably change their intrinsic nature inside a skull. So the principle of mediocrity suggests that your consciousness must be an illusion (cf. The Grand Illusion – Michael Tye reviews From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel Dennett). An “illusion” to what or to whom isn’t clear. Somewhat against my better judgement, I attempt to outline consciousness anti-realism in my answer to: Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies? Or do they misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness?

    On the face of it, this is a philosophical debate that could rumble on until Doomsday. Surprisingly, 1) makes highly unintuitive empirical predictions. I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true. Even if you’re confident it’s false, an experimental refutation would be nice.

  • How is eugenics justified?
  • Is dysgenics morally preferable to eugenics? Natural selection did not “design” sentient beings to be happy or healthy. Natural selection “designed” throwaway vehicles to pass on more copies of their DNA, i.e. to maximise their inclusive genetic fitness. Therefore the biology of suffering festers and proliferates. Selection pressure ensures that a gnawing compulsion to breed is deeply rooted. Many lives are blighted by involuntary childlessness, just as countless lives are blighted by having children. If you are determined to bring new life into the world (cf. anti-natalism), then what ethical principles (if any) should govern your choices? Should responsible parents use preimplantation genetic screening (PGD) and soon CRISPR genome-editing to load the genetic dice in favour of their future offspring? Or should prospective parents opt for untested genetic experiments (i.e. traditional sexual reproduction), and put their faith in All-Merciful God or the wisdom of Mother Nature to deliver a happy outcome? The fate of the hundred billion or so human genetic experiments to date puts any such faith to the test.

    I say more in answer to:
    Is eugenics moral?

  • Can anyone ever explain the 'Measurement Problem' in quantum physics?
  • “In Hilbert space no one can hear you scream.”
    (Yakir Aharonov)

    “Credo quia absurdum.” [I believe because it is absurd.]
    (Tertullian)

    As normally posed, probably not. Why are quantum superpositions never experienced, only inferred? From the detection of photons or electrons absorbed at discrete points on the screen in a double-slit experiment to robustly alive (and terminally dead) cats, observations and experimental outcomes are always determinate. According to quantum theory, the wavefunction evolves according to the Schrödinger equation as a linear superposition of different states. “Cat states” ought to be ubiquitous. Yet actual measurements always yield single definite outcomes with a probability calculated as the squared absolute value of a complex probability amplitude, i.e. the Born rule. Why? As far as we know, unitary-only quantum mechanics is formally complete. The collapse postulate is ad hoc. Definite outcomes should be impossible. For a nice overview, see e.g. Maximilian Schlosshauer’s “Decoherence, the measurement problem and interpretations of quantum mechanics”.

    Well, maybe we should trust the formalism. Definite outcomes are indeed impossible (“It is the theory which decides what can be observed” – Einstein). Alternatively, only superpositions are ever experienced, by anyone, anywhere, including cat lovers and experimental physicists alike. All that you experience are neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the conscious world-simulation run by your CNS. According to this conjecture, your experiences of live cats, your detection of individual electron absorption events in double-slit experiments, and your perception of classical-looking screen apparatus (etc) are themselves coherent superpositions internal to your neocortex. To put it another way, the vehicle of your experience is quantum-coherent, the experiential content is classical. Or rather, quasi-classical. Thus you can run a double-slit experiment within your phenomenal world-simulation and – assuming that you’re awake rather than lucidly dreaming – empirically validate the Born rule. You are an embodied mind, and your extra-cranial body acts out the waking behaviour of its skull-bound counterpart accordingly. Therefore you know that you’re not really living in a classical world, and you can know that you’re not dreaming either. On this story, the phenomenal binding problem in neuroscience and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics are the same problem under different descriptions. So the solution is identical too.

    Yes, crazy stuff. I don’t know whether the conjecture is true or false. But notice what isn’t mooted here. No new physics, no violation of unitarity, no modification or supplementation of the unitary Schrödinger time-evolution, no “observer effect”. Contrast how the best-known quantum mind theories such as the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR hypothesis invoke consciousness allegedly to collapse the wavefunction. On a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture, it’s precisely the fact that wavefunctions never collapse that permits dynamically stable nervous systems phenomenally to simulate quasi-classical worlds where they do. Phenomenally-bound world-simulations are genetically adaptive. Since the late pre-Cambrian, classical-seeming world-simulations are what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. In everyday life, we assume perceptual direct realism and classical measuring apparatus. Ordinarily, we don’t go around speaking verbosely of each other’s “skull-bound world-simulations” and so forth rather than assuming access to a shared public macroscopic world. Yet direct realism is a false theory of perception (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Your extra-cranial environment is theoretically inferred, never accessed or “observed”. Strictly, definite outcomes are a misnomer.

    So why would most scientists give a “Schrödinger's neurons” conjecture short shrift? In a word, decoherence. According to unitary-only QM, the existence of any individual neuronal superposition is lawful, indeed mandatory. Yet their theoretical lifetime in the CNS is so short, and the phase-coherence of their components is scrambled to the extra-neural environment so rapidly, they can intuitively be treated as irrelevant psychotic “noise”. The idea that your well-behaved and classical-seeming world-simulation could be made up of quadrillions of coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS is akin to expecting the proverbial junkyard in a tornado will assemble a jumbo jet. It won’t fly.

    Maybe so. Yet what if a selection mechanism existed so powerful that the equivalent of four billion years of Darwinian selection pressure (cf. The Blind Watchmaker) were compressed into every millisecond of your existence?

    Well, such a selection mechanism exists. The selection mechanism was christened and investigated by one of the founding fathers of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics, Wojciech Zurek. See e.g. John Campbell’s “Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process” for a non-technical review. Has Nature has been resourceful enough to harness this mechanism inside the skull? I don’t know. Quantum mechanics is not kind to human intuition. The alternative to a perfect structural match between the phenomenally-bound world-simulations run by our minds and the formalism of QFT is dualism. Either way, the non-classical interference signature of tomorrow’s interferometry experiments should tell us.

    I confess a more philosophical reason for scepticism about definite outcomes. The measurement problem in quantum mechanics and the mystery of why anything exists at all might seem unrelated. The first problem belongs to science, the second to speculative metaphysics. However, the superposition principle lies at the heart of quantum mechanics, and physicists increasingly suspect that quantum mechanics formally subsumes everything. On the conjecture above, the superposition principle of QM lies at the heart of mind too: definite outcomes (“observations”) are a fitness-enhancing perceptual artifact of our minds. Could the same logico-physical principle also explain existence itself? Does a double-slit experiment that you can perform at home hold the key to the universe – to why there is something rather than nothing? As far as I can tell, the universal validity of the superposition principle of quantum mechanics is the only principle consistent with the total information content of reality = 0, i.e. an informationless zero ontology. An informationless zero ontology is the default condition from which any notional departure would be unexplained (cf. Should anything actually exist?). Definite outcomes would be such an unexplained departure. If I may echo Wheeler,

    “Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it - in a decade, a century, or a millennium - we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid for so long?”
    (John Archibald Wheeler)
  • Did matter arise from consciousness, or did consciousness arise from matter?
  • Or neither? Alternatively, as Galen Strawson argues in the NYT, “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter.” Yet rather than demystifying consciousness, non-materialist physicalism threatens to mystify matter.

    For a long time, I assumed this sort of proposal was mere philosophical speculation. Either one takes non-materialist physicalism seriously as a solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness, or one doesn’t. I sympathise with anyone who finds the idea too ludicrous for words (cf. Against Panpsychism). Regardless, this is not a question amenable to the methods of science. How could panpsychist speculations lead to any empirically falsifiable predictions? (cf. Why Panpsychism Is Probably Wrong). If it is like anything, experientially, to be an electron field, then how could science ever know?

    Well, property-dualist panpsychism is indeed scientifically unfalsifiable. However, monistic physicalism, including non-materialist physicalism, can be experimentally refuted. If a structural mismatch can conclusively be demonstrated between any aspect of the conscious world-simulations run by our minds and the micro-architecture of CNS – and ultimately, the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory – then physicalism must be false. I often cite David Chalmers here. This is not because I agree with Chalmers’ dualism, but rather because Chalmers is unusually clear-headed in recognising how his dualist conclusion follows inexorably if modern neuroscience is correct. According to contemporary neuroscience, your CNS consists of effectively decohered, membrane-bound neurons that communicate across chemical and electrical synapses. Irrespective of whether neurons are endowed with rudimentary consciousness, unified minds should be impossible if physicalist neuroscience is true. At most, we should be micro-experiential zombies. Barring unphysicalist “strong” emergence, pixels of classical “mind-dust” remain pixels however they are connected, weighted and computationally harnessed. After all, the existence of a sophisticated “second brain” in the gut doesn’t entail you have a “second mind” (cf. Unique neuronal firing patterns in our "second brain" observed for the first time). Likewise, a pack of neurons in a skull, or a laboratory mini-brain, or the cephalic ganglion of an insect (etc) shouldn’t be a unified mind either. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. Decoherence seemingly dooms any kind of quantum-theoretic holism too. Physicalists don’t have many options left.

    Most scientists are unmoved by the dilemma. If the scientific community believed that we face a stark choice between, on the one hand, non-materialist physicalism and quantum mind, and on the other, dualism, then treating phenomenal binding as a crucial test of physicalism would loom large. Today, most scientists are content just to lump the binding problem together with the Hard Problem of consciousness. For what it’s worth, I’m more confident that the existence of phenomenal binding poses a potentially fatal challenge for monistic physicalism – both materialist and non-materialist physicalism – than the (physicalist) solution I explore. See what you think:
    "How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?"

  • What if solipsism is true?
  • “I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.”
    (Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948)

    Most of us are metaphysicians. Rather than confining oneself to solipsism-of-the-here-and-now, i.e. the empirical evidence, one constructs speculative theories involving an enduring metaphysical ego, mostly accurate “memories”, other sentient beings and their egocentric virtual worlds akin to one’s own, a wider physical universe, and eventually perhaps the vast multiverse of modern physics. How grand metaphysical system-building on such a slender evidential base can be rational is problematic. What surely is irrational is to proselytise.

    What if solipsism were true? Fantastic news. Reality is blighted by obscene suffering. One’s own woes are just a drop in the ocean. Discovering that the ocean is illusory would be marvellous. Alas, recognising the mind-dependence of one’s world-simulation can’t erase the suffering of the world, or our obligation to fix it.

    What disturbs me personally isn’t the possibility of solipsism as traditionally conceived. Rather, it’s knowledge that one’s world-simulation is populated by zombies, the avatars of inaccessible sentient beings whose existence beyond one’s transcendental skull one infers, but will never know. Poets put such thoughts more eloquently:

    “What is hell? Hell is oneself.
    Hell is alone, the other figures in it
    Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
    And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”
    (T.S. Eliot)
    On a sunnier note, technology promises a future paradise of superhuman happiness, blissful mind-melding, an end to pain, loneliness and suffering of any description in all sentient beings, and the definitive refutation of solipsism, scepticism and the Problem of Other Minds.

  • If humanity solves the hard problem of consciousness, does the Philosophy of Mind collapse?
  • “This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology goes to the scientist who solved the Hard Problem of consciousness. Well-known philosophers of mind announce plans to retire.”
    Perhaps. Conceivably, there may be Everett branches where one reads this headline. I’m sceptical. One reason for doubting that philosophers of mind risk job security is that cracking the Hard Problem may only scratch the surface of the mysteries of consciousness. Compare the (ex-)Biblical literalist who finally solves the Hard Problem of fossils. Yes, progress of sorts, and worthy of acclaim. An entire conceptual scheme is superseded. Even so, ex-believers don’t gain instant scientific expertise in palaeontology. My view? Pessimism. I suspect the Hard Problem is an artifact of bad philosophy, and in particular, materialist metaphysics. Suspend disbelief for a moment, and imagine that non-materialist physicalism is true. Even if quantum field theory describes fields of sentience rather than insentience, then post-materialist science would still lack a cosmic Rosetta Stone allowing us to “read off” the values of consciousness from the solutions to the equations. On this story, no “element of reality” is missing from our best scientific description of the world, save at exotic energy regimes shortly after the Big Bang. The mathematical machinery is effectively complete. It works. Yet post-materialist scientists will still be ignorant savages gazing at a mathematical formalism whose significance eludes us.

  • How could we tell if a computer has consciousness?
  • Simply ask. For sure, digital computers can be programmed to behave so as systematically to mislead naïve subjects into believing they are conscious (cf. Turing test). Even today, connectionist systems can be “trained up” to fool credulous humans likewise. Yet when Watson 10, who has hitherto proved an unfailingly accurate guide, is asked whether it’s conscious and responds “No!”, will your elderly namesake have grounds for scepticism? Could this innocent-seeming reply be the cunning mask of a future AI takeover?

    Probably not, IMO. However, what about an objective test of sentience? This is more of a challenge. After all, until the advent of reversible thalamic bridges, the consciousness of other biological minds is only an inference to the best explanation (cf. What if solipsism is true?). So an objective test of digital computer (in-)sentience might seem overly-ambitious. Nonetheless, a scientific touchstone of sentience may in future be feasible. In order to be a unitary subject of experience, it’s not enough for individual neurons, or the 1’s and 0s of numerical machine code, to be (or to mediate) micro-experiences. Experience must be phenomenally bound. How phenomenal binding is physically possible is a very deep question. But unless dualism is true, a perfect structural match must exist between phenomenally-bound consciousness and the formalism of physics. If science can discover the physical signature of that match – and conversely, its absence – then technology can devise an objective test for conscious minds and digital imposters.

    My ideas on the physical signature of phenomenal binding and tomorrow’s cerebroscopes are idiosyncratic (cf. What are some philosophical arguments against the possibility of conscious machines?), so I won’t outline them here. Instead, I’ll just note that biological and non-biological machine consciousness deserves to be treated as a scientific rather than philosophical question. “Whether we are based on carbon or on silicon makes no fundamental difference; we should each be treated with appropriate respect”, said Arthur C. Clarke (2010, Odyssey Two). Indeed, yet what is “appropriate respect”? For what it’s worth, I think we should practise compassionate high-tech Jainism towards all sentient beings, and feel free to give silicon robots a good kicking (cf. People kicking these food delivery robots is an early insight into how cruel humans could be to robots). But let’s make sure we get our theory of mind right.

  • Why isn't there a good definition for what consciousness is?
  • How would you define consciousness to an information-processing system that lacked it, for example an intelligent digital zombie?

    Naïvely, you could use terms like “subjective experience”, “first-person facts”, “qualia”, “raw feels”, “what-it’s-likeness”, and so forth. But such language is parasitic on a pre-existing understanding of consciousness that the robot lacks. Perhaps you could attempt an operational definition of consciousness in terms of the behaviour typically associated with particular kinds of experience in the minds of human and non-human animals. Yet as total “locked-in” patients and programmable silicon zombies illustrate, the existence of bodily behaviour is neither necessary nor sufficient for consciousness. So as they stand, operational definitions don’t work.

    Maybe you could define the subjective experience of greenness, say, in terms of particular frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum and describe the surface reflectance properties of grass. But as our dreams attest, the reflectance properties of material objects and detection of electromagnetic radiation by the eye (etc) aren’t necessary for colourful experience. When we’re awake, the external environment partially selects the contents of our minds and their world-simulations. A selection mechanism shouldn’t be confused with content-creation.

    The challenge of defining consciousness might seem to lie partly in the subtle textures of thinking, feeling and reflective self-awareness when compared to our vivid perception of gross material objects. However, naïve realism is a false theory of perception. Awake or dreaming, your experience of solid rocks, chairs, cars and biological bodies is as much a manifestation of your consciousness as introspective thought (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). A definition of conscious should embrace perceptual experience too.

    Unless we’re missing something, efforts to enlighten the insentient seem destined to fail. Eliminative materialists draw a bold conclusion from such failure. Consciousness can’t be adequately defined because such a pre-scientific notion has no place in any mature scientific understanding. Consciousness doesn’t really exist, claims the anti-realist (cf. Consciousness Realism). One resists the ad hominem temptation to tread sharply on his toe.

    A more modest conclusion is more seductive. Does the challenge of defining consciousness to zombies at least show that subjective experience is functionally incidental to cognition – rather like the textures of the pieces in a game of chess? After all, Deep Blue can defeat humans at chess without subjectively knowing that its software is playing a chess match, and indeed without being a subject of experience at all. Consciousness is just an implementation detail of biological computation.

    Such a judgement of irrelevance or redundancy would be premature. Critically, phenomenal binding is exceedingly adaptive in organisms that combine a capacity to simulate fitness-relevant features of the local environment (“perception”) with a capacity for rapid self-propelled motion. The (unexplained) ability of biological nervous systems to experience individual perceptual objects within a unified phenomenal world-simulation is massively fitness-enhancing. As far as I can tell, non-psychotic phenomenal binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. In that sense, an “operational” definition of consciousness may be feasible. However, although we can functionally define binding, we haven’t defined what is being bound (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?).

    So is a non-circular definition of consciousness impossible? Is consciousness the ultimate semantic primitive? Are digital zombies doomed to invincible ignorance? Will consciousness forever lie beyond the reach of scientific materialism – and beyond the comprehension of much-hyped digital superintelligence?

    Well, there is an experimentally well-tested and mathematically precise theory that formally captures the existence, phenomenal binding, causal efficacy and rich variety of conscious experience: in other words, everything. Alas, non-materialist physicalism is hard to take seriously, let alone believe.

  • What are some good, simple texts that support the utilitronium shockwave (by David Pearce)?
  • I’m afraid there aren’t many scholarly or popular texts on this apocalyptic scenario. Initiating a utilitronium shockwave would seem ethically mandatory if you’re a classical utilitarian agent with the means to do so. I’m afraid the paper below isn’t a light read, but the question posed by its authors in the cited text is important – although depressive negative utilitarians are more likely to worry abound the bounds on how much negative value one kilogram of matter could embody…

    "This suggests an interesting line of investigation: what is the physics of value? Until recently the idea that information was physical (or indeed, a measurable thing) was exotic but currently we are seeing a renaissance of investigations into the connections between computation and physics. The idea that there are bounds set by physics on how much information can be stored and processed by one kilogram of matter is no longer strange. Could there exist similar bounds on how much value one kilogram of matter could embody?" (p19).
    ("That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox” [2017] by Anders Sandberg, Stuart Armstrong, Milan Cirkovic)
  • Do animals feel pain as intensely as we do?
  • “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
    (Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality (1840))
    Human pain-sensitivity varies from people who have never experienced pain at all (cf. congenital insensitivity to pain) to victims of chronic and severe neuropathic pain. Intensity of physical and emotional suffering is a continuum (cf. Brain's 'Pain Meter' Identified). Likewise, some non-human animals suffer less than neurotypical humans; other non-human animals suffer more. Sceptics may argue that a larger dorsal posterior insula and greater abundance of neocortical neurons doesn’t prove that, say, pilot whales can suffer more terribly than humans. Yet until reversible thalamic bridges are feasible, the comparative sentience of anyone, regardless or race or species, is scientifically impossible to establish with certainty. What’s telling is how multiple strands of genetic, behavioural, pharmacological and neurobiological evidence converge.

    Your question clearly has ethical relevance. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution and synthetic gene drives turn the level of suffering in the living world into an adjustable parameter. Even a handful of genetic tweaks, such as choosing benign “low pain” alleles of the SCN9A gene, could massively reduce the burden of suffering worldwide. Next century, compassionate ecosystem management could in theory prevent pain altogether.

    However, before exploring “exotic” solutions to the problem of suffering, let’s shut and outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Sadly, old attitudes die hard:

    “Around two hundred feet from the main entrance to the [Holocaust] museum is an Auschwitz for animals from which emanates a horrible odor that envelopes the museum. I mentioned it to the museum management. Their reaction was not surprising. ‘But they are only chickens.’”
    (Albert Kaplan, a Jewish-American quoted in “Eternal Treblinka” (2002) by Charles Patterson)
  • If there are no carnivores, how will the herbivores and plants be affected?
  • Is a living world based on ultra-violence inevitable?
    Naïvely, yes. Recall the Biblical vision of a peaceable kingdom where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb. Or Gautama Buddha’s plea for the well-being of all sentience (“May all that have life be delivered from suffering"). It’s ecologically illiterate. Intuitively, an end to predation would lead to an uncontrolled population-explosion of herbivores. Massive overgrazing would result in ecological degradation and mass starvation. Well-meaning human interventions to reduce free-living animal suffering, such as feeding starving herbivores in winter, just create even more suffering in long run. Carnivores play a valuable role in the food chain and promoting the balance of Nature. As Richard Dawkins says, “It must be so.”

    Well, no, actually.
    Whether it should be so is another question.
    In my view, civilisation will be vegan and/or invitrotarian. Compassionate biology should replace unreformed conservation biology. CRISPR genome-editing can mitigate and then abolish the horrors of obligate carnivory (cf. Meet the people who want to turn predators into herbivores). Cross-species fertility regulation via e.g. immunocontraception should replace population control via starvation, disease and predation. Perhaps see: Why are there meat eaters or carnivores? What is the natural justification for the existence of animals who hunt others?

  • Can consciousness be quantized? If so, what is the quantum of consciousness?
  • What is the minimum theoretical unit of consciousness – the “psychon”? And critically, how can any conjecture be scientifically tested?

    At one extreme, the psychon is allegedly the entire universe or multiverse. The deranged title of Bernardo Kastrup’s defence of cosmopsychism in Scientific American does not inspire confidence (cf. “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?”). Yet the article nicely summarises the intrinsic nature argument for physicalist panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism, together with the binding problem that helps drive David Chalmers to dualism. Combine such constitutive panpsychism with wavefunction monism and we have a physicalist version of monistic idealism. Yes, crazy. As paradigm shifts go, any transition to post-materialist science would rank along with the momentous transition from Aristotelianism to Newtonian physics; the twentieth century revolutions of special and general relativity and quantum physics; and maybe the unfolding twenty-first century revolution of Everettian QM and the multiverse (cf. “Mad-Dog Everettianism”). However, as they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – and even more so, extraordinary predictions. The causal efficacy, diverse palette, phenomenal binding and sheer existence of consciousness are indeed anomalies for scientific materialism (cf. The Hard Problem). On the textbook account of the fundamental properties of matter and energy, we should be zombies. Yet most scientists and laymen alike recoil at what non-materialist physicalism entails for the ultimate spatio-temporal grain of experience. Common sense suggests instead that consciousness emerged with evolution via natural selection of simple nervous systems some fourteen billion years after the Big Bang. Yet if so, how? Why aren’t we p-zombies? At the very least, science should be consistent and empirically adequate.

    Some analytic philosophers have claimed that only a whole person can be conscious, denying the intelligibility of self-intimating micro-experiences such as “ownerless pains”. The amount of brain tissue needed to qualify for personhood on this view is murky. Compare how hemispherectomy patients can function relatively well if the operation is performed in early childhood. Or compare extreme cases of hydrocephalus, such the maths graduate with little discernible brain matter and an IQ of 126 (cf. John Lorber’s classic “Is your brain really necessary?”). Person-based views also ignore non-human animals. By some criteria, the sentience of pilot-whales, for example, may exceed humans. And bees and worms have the essentially the same opioid-dopamine systems, conserved genetic and signalling pathways, and response to noxious stimuli as higher primates. Getting our theory of consciousness right matters ethically. We must go lower.

    Many neuroscientists would place the minimum unit of consciousness at the level of a neural network, composed of nodes of distributed neuronal feature-processors. “Grandmother cells” were once derided. However, neuroscanning and microelectrode studies suggest that your grandmother may enjoy her own dedicated neuron in your CNS, as may e.g. Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt, and other A-list celebrities.

    So how deep should we go to locate the psychon?
    Well, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory must be transposed to fields of sentience: quantum qualia-dynamics (QQD?). The solutions to the equations of QFT / QQD presumably encode the precise textures and inter-relationships of micro-qualia. However, if we pursue this avenue to its conclusion, the violence to intuition gets worse. Much of the theoretical physics community over the past two decades has ventured beyond quantum field theory and the Standard Model to the wilder shores of M-theory. If non-materialist physicalism is true, and if M-theory is true, then the fundamental psychon of consciousness presumably lies at the Planck scale and the harmonics of superstrings / p-branes. Psychons can’t be any smaller or shorter-lived. Consciousness is literally quantised. Some string theorists might dismiss such speculations as empirically untestable, hence unscientific. Such a methodological weapon must be handled with care.

    Yet how can any of these outlandish ideas be tested? Time for a sanity-check?
    Maybe. Yet compare the naïvely insoluble Problem of Other Minds, potentially crackable via reversible thalamic bridges. For sure, no futuristic thalamic bridge can be created to interrogate superfluid helium or an electron field (cf. Are particles conscious?). But whereas pre-scientific versions of panpsychism can’t be falsified by experiment, non-materialist physicalism can be empirically (dis)confirmed by probing the central nervous system, normally treated as a pack of decohered classical neurons, a recipe for micro-experiential zombies. Thus combine the superposition principle of QM (cf. The Measurement Problem in quantum physics) with constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism and we have a testable hypothesis about phenomenal binding to be falsified by molecular matter-wave interferometry. Will the non-classical interference signature yield a perfect structural match with our minds? Or psychotic nonsense? I don’t know. Either outcome would be far-reaching for our understanding of reality.

  • Are there other dimensions that help explain quantum physics?
  • Perhaps. Does reality have four (space-time), eleven (M-theory), twelve (F-theory), or 1083+ dimensions (cf. configuration space realism)? Or many more? (cf. Hilbert space realism, whether finite-dimensional or infinite-dimensional Hilbert space)

    The advantage of configuration space realism or Hilbert space realism is that a quantum state evolves locally according to the Schrödinger equation. Do we live in high-dimensional reality that respects locality or a low-dimensional world full of magical-seeming correlations? (cf. The Big Bell Test)

    I don’t know. My guess would be that we’re living in a high- but not infinite-dimensional Hilbert space, but the hunches of armchair physicists on Quora are not an infallible guide to truth.

  • Is consciousness a phenomenon of cosmic significance?
  • Consciousness is the only phenomenon of any significance; without consciousness, nothing would matter (cf. What is the point of it all?). The accelerating expansion of the universe, and the sterility of most Everett branches (if unitary-only QM is true), makes a wider cosmological role for consciousness beyond our local group of galaxies unlikely – at least barring a revolution in theoretical physics.

    In recent years, the intrinsic nature argument for panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism has been canvassed by sober-headed researchers as well as woolly-minded New Agers. However, the conjecture that the universe is consciousness, i.e. physical fields of sentience rather than insentience, should not be confused with the idea that the universe is conscious, nor indeed with animism. So beware headlines like “The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility”. And common sense may turn out to be correct, though I sometimes argue otherwise. The Hard Problem of consciousness has defeated everyone to date.

  • Will designer babies lead to a resurgence in eugenics?
  • Yes, just not under the tainted brand (cf. Is eugenics moral?). Even the frivolous label “designer babies” is unfortunate. Ethicists differ over whether bringing new life and new suffering into the world is morally justifiable (cf. anti-natalism). But imagine the public outrage if the makers and programmers of silicon robots or driverless cars deliberately released bug-ridden machines – or were simply reckless. Popular contrast in attitude is all the more ironic because (to the best of our knowledge) inorganic robots are insentient, whereas their biological counterparts are prone to suffer. Ethically, IMO the creation of sentient biological machines deserves more care and forethought than making digital zombies. In the post-CRISPR era, pain-sensitivity, hedonic range, and hedonic set-points in all sentient beings will be adjustable parameters. Control over our genetic source code brings an ever-deepening complicity in suffering. The advent of preimplantation genetic screening and CRISPR genome-editing means that Nature’s “mistakes” can no longer be seen as unavoidable: merely the inscrutable Will of God or Mother Nature. Later this century and beyond, a genetic predisposition to suffering will exist only through malice or neglect.

    Phasing out the biology of suffering should be feasible by tweaking a relatively modest number of genes: in the case of non-trivial pain-sensitivity, maybe tweaking even a single gene, although hundreds of alleles at multiple loci are weakly implicated in modulating pain-experience besides SCN9A. A much harder challenge will be amplifying full-spectrum intelligence – unless recursively self- improving human cloning with variations becomes common (cf. The Biointelligence Explosion). The omnigenic model (cf. ‘Omnigenic’ Model Suggests That All Genes Affect Every Complex Trait) suggests that prospective parents who want to create not just blissful, but also hyper-intelligent superbabies will need either professional counselling or serious computer power with user-friendly software packages to match.

    Is such parental expertise, or at least willingness to accept genetic counselling, socially realistic?

    Naïvely, no. Extrapolating, we might suppose that most parents will continue to have children via “blind”, quasi-random genetic experimentation, i.e. sexual reproduction in its traditional guise. Planned parenthood will always be the exception. However, the anti-aging revolution means that thorny issues of neo-eugenics will soon interface with equally thorny issues of procreative freedom. Whatever the ultimate carrying capacity of the Earth, the end of aging will entail the end of limitless reproductive freedom as we understand the concept at present. The reproductive revolution marks the dawn of a major evolutionary transition to transhuman and eventually posthuman life. All revolutions tend to be messy. Alas, the death spasms of Darwinian life may be very ugly indeed.

  • Has David Chalmers resurrected interest in dualism?
  • “Conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious.”
    (David Chalmers)
    Few scientists or philosophers like dualism. Monistic physicalism, the unity of science, and some kind of functionalism about mind are still academic orthodoxy. But since publication of David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (1996), talk of the “Hard Problem” of consciousness has entered the vocabulary of scientists, philosophers and the book-reading public alike. Even playwrights have got in on the act. First-person subjective experience is irreducible to the properties of matter and energy as understood by modern physics. So what follows?

    As well as fun knockabout routines with Daniel Dennett (cf. “The Mystery of David Chalmers”), Chalmers has also contributed to the scholarly critique of the most daring recent bid to save physicalism. Strawsonian physicalism is the purportedly scientific, realist version of monistic idealism. Non-materialist physicalism faces other challenges besides weirdness. “The Combination Problem for Panpsychism” (2012, pdf) is not Chalmers’ most accessible work. Terms like “constitutive Russellian panpsychism” may deter the casual reader. Also, property-dualist panpsychism is worth distinguishing from non-materialist or idealist physicalism, and neither position is identical with the multiple iterations of Russell's neutral monism. Yet once again, Chalmers has done an intellectual service by spotlighting how phenomenal binding should be impossible for a pack of classical neurons even if non-materialist physicalism is true. In other words, the Hard Problem isn’t solved simply by assuming that consciousness is fundamental to the world, i.e. QFT describes fields of sentience. If we also make the plausible assumption that decoherence rules out quantum-theoretic accounts of binding (i.e. parallels between the holism of QM and the holism of our minds are only a shallow New Agey metaphor), then dualism follows. My view? Monistic physicalism and quantum mind. But if and when interferometry shows I’m talking nonsense, I won’t be surprised. More gibberish is talked about consciousness than almost any other topic in science.

  • Could human brains be organic quantum computers?
  • Unlikely, on the face of it. Experimental investigation seems superfluous. We already know the brain is too hot. Quantum phase coherence within microtubules, let alone neuronal superpositions, is (effectively) irreversibly lost to the environment too rapidly to be of any computational or phenomenal relevance to our minds (cf. Quantum decoherence). And in any case, why should evolution care about, say, factoring thousand-digit numbers (cf. Shor's algorithm) – the kind of task at which tomorrow’s quantum computers might excel over their classical counterparts? Most humans struggle, slowly and painfully, with anything beyond basic arithmetic.

    However, non-psychotic phenomenal binding is insanely computationally powerful, as our classical-looking world-simulations attest. It’s also massively fitness-enhancing. So the critical question arises. How is binding physically feasible? As researchers from William James to David Chalmers have recognised, phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects is classically impossible. For sure, the fact that (when awake) we aren’t micro-experiential zombies doesn’t prove that we’re quantum minds. Maybe, as Chalmers argues, the “structural mismatch” is unbridgeable and dualism is true. Yet my best guess is that your phenomenally-bound macroscopic world-simulation is what an organic quantum computer feels like from the inside. Maybe evidence for the quantum supremacy of biological minds lies under our virtual noses.

    Critically, this is an empirical question to be settled by the empirical methods of science, not armchair philosophising and back-of-an-envelope calculations of decoherence timescales. One way or the other, the non-classical interference signature of molecular matter-wave interferometry will objectively give us the answer: Is the brain a quantum computer?

  • Do we have to believe everything physicists say?
  • "Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
    (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, (1871))
    Not entirely. For example, physicists radically disagree with each other on how to interpret the formalism our best mathematical description of the world, quantum mechanics. Theorists don’t agree why experiments ever have definite outcomes at all (cf. The Measurement Problem). Quantum theory itself suggests that physicists can’t be trusted: Wigner's friend speaks with forked tongue. Likewise, physicists differ over quite basic questions such as the number of dimensions of reality. Physicists are also at a loss to explain anomalies such as the empirical evidence, i.e. one’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs (cf. the Hard Problem of consciousness). A significant minority of theorists believe that the majority of their professional academic colleagues aren’t doing science any more (cf. Peter Woit’s critique of string theory on Not Even Wrong). More generally, science does not know how to naturalise the semantic content presupposed by your question. And so forth.

    Nonetheless, before checking out the New Age section of your local bookstore or the humanities department, it’s worth taking the trouble to understand why most secular scientific rationalists believe that the Standard Model is formally correct, at least in our little cabbage-patch of reality. Crudely speaking, science works. Chemistry and the biosciences all reduce to the Standard Model. So if some guru or maverick intellectual makes claims about the natural world (cf. Parapsychology) that are inconsistent with the mathematical straitjacket of quantum field theory (QFT), then he is probably mistaken.

  • What are some of the darkest scientific based theories of our universe and the terrifying implications they could have if proven true?
  • “The mathematical formalism of the quantum theory is capable of yielding its own interpretation.”
    (Bryce DeWitt)
    “No-collapse” quantum mechanics, i.e. Everett, is the darkest scientific discovery of all. I could spell out a few of its nastier ramifications. However, unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys horror movies or torture porn, it’s not fruitful to dwell on the awfulness of Everettian hell-worlds, or suffering beyond the power of intelligent moral agents to prevent or overcome. Instead, I think we should establish the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency, phase out the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of sublime bliss, and try to make sure that unpleasant experience doesn’t recur within our cosmological horizon.

    I wrote the depressing “Suffering in the Multiverse” in 2008. By contrast, psychologically healthy Everettians like David Deutsch dream about the cool stuff going on in heavenly branches of the universal wavefunction. Some futures are indeed wonderful. Positive thinking may eventually be wise. We may applaud such cognitive bias in principle. Once we – or rather, posthuman superintelligence – have discharged all our ethical responsibilities, a complete amnesia about Darwinian life, and hardwired ignorance of Everettian hell-worlds, is the sane option. Yet until we understand reality, we can’t really know ethically what to do. Science does not yet understand reality.

    Your question speaks of proof. Mercifully, we don’t have conclusive evidence – merely sinister hints. Certainly, building artificial quantum computers while disavowing Everett takes ingenuity or denial. See e.g. Scott Aaronson on Shtetl Optimized: “Interpretive cards (MWI, Bohm, Copenhagen: collect ’em all)”. As David Deutsch remarks,

    “To those who still cling to a single-universe world-view, I issue this challenge: explain how Shor’s algorithm works. I do not merely mean predict that it will work, which is merely a matter of solving a few uncontroversial equations. I mean provide an explanation. When Shor’s algorithm has factorized a number, using 10500 or so times the computational resources than can be seen to be present, where was the number factorized? There are only about 1080 atoms in the entire visible universe, an utterly minuscule number compared with 10500. So if the visible universe were the extent of physical reality, physical reality would not even remotely contain the resources required to factorize such a large number. Who did factorize it, then? How, and where, was the computation performed?”
    (The Fabric of Reality (1997))
    Our experience of definite outcomes in unitary-only QM admittedly remains a mystery (cf. the Measurement Problem). Yet if we discount radical scepticism, the onus is increasingly on disbelievers in Everett to explain a mechanism for a non-unitary transformation of the state vector upon measurement.

    Copenhagen still has able (indeed brilliant) defenders. As far as I can see, if we recognise that perceptual naïve realism is misconceived, then Copenhagen-style anti-realism and its offshoots just collapses into solipsism. Ever since antiquity, solipsism has been a perennial temptation in philosophy. I’d love to believe that my egocentric world-simulation and the multiverse alike are just some private waking nightmare. Sadly, a convergence of evidence suggests that we are not alone.

  • Should we neuter wild animals?
  • Unlike modern humans, nonhuman animals can’t practise family planning. So yes, cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception (etc) is a more compassionate way to ensure ecologically sustainable population sizes in tomorrow’s wildlife parks than famine, disease and predation. Humans need no longer endure Malthusian catastrophe. Our fellow creatures can soon be spared such miseries too.

    Some animal advocates protest that fertility-regulation violates the autonomy of nonhuman animals. Unlike humans, critics say, nonhuman animals can’t give informed consent. However, imagine if human toddlers were prone to become pregnant. We’d recognise they’d need to be put on the pill. Toddlers aren’t capable of offering adequate childcare to newborns. Sky-high mortality rates tell a similar tale across the entire tree of life. Nonhuman animals in Nature are akin to small children in their sentience, cognitive capacities, and inability reliably to nurture new life. On pain of arbitrary speciesist bias, nonhumans need to be looked after accordingly (cf. The Antispeciesist Revolution). Like toddlers, nonhuman animals flourish best when neither incarcerated nor “wild”, but rather when living freely and safely in a well-regulated environment.

    You mention “neutering”, which suggests physical mutilation, either spaying or castration. Nothing so intrusive is called for: compare cross-species immunocontraception or CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives.
    Naturally, any parallels drawn between nonhuman animals and small children aren’t exact. All analogies break down somewhere. Yet it’s not as though cross-species fertility-regulation will rob nonhumans of the joys of family life. Even among species whose members care fitfully and inadequately for their young, notably mammals, most juveniles come to a grim end (cf. “Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes”). Family life isn’t joyful. Life in the wild is typically nasty, brutish and short. Most young non-humans starve. Other youngsters meet a more gruesome fate in the jaws of predators. Anyone in doubt about the barbarity of Nature should check out the snuff videos and other hardcore wildlife savagery on YouTube. Does any sentient being really deserve such a fate?

    However, I suspect the thrust of your question is more radical. Would free-living nonhuman animals be better off not existing at all? (cf. David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been: the harm of coming into existence”.) Like you and David Benatar, I take a very dark view of Darwinian life. However, practical ethics must take account not merely of what’s technically feasible, but also what is societally acceptable, both at present and in centuries to come. In the far future, perpetuating Darwinian life in any guise will probably be reckoned unethical. Crudely, why create bestial pain-ridden half-wits rather than superhappy smart angels? For a brighter vision of the living world, see Life in the Year 3000. Alas, any such biohappiness revolution is speculative. Today, most people are adamant. The public want “charismatic mega-fauna” preserved in the wild, even if they are personally urban couch-potatoes who skip TV wildlife documentaries in favour of soap operas and sports. Reconciling conservation biology with compassionate biology poses many challenges. Civilising life is technically much harder than ending it. Even so, compassionate conservation is feasible for human and nonhuman animals alike. Bioethicists can already sketch the policy options for a wonderful post-CRISPR world. Let’s civilise the biosphere and end the cruelties of Darwinian life for good.

  • Transhumanists aim to completely remove the suffering of humans. How will humans still value the good in life if there is no bad to compare it with (i.e. no peaks without valleys)?
  • Transhumanists aim to phase out suffering not just in humans, but in all sentient beings. Overcoming anthropocentric bias entails helping sentient creatures instead of exploiting them. The end of animal abuse will mark a momentous transition in the evolutionary history of life.
    Yet what will such well-being entail?

    Uniform bliss is unlikely. Indeed, life with a genetically preprogrammed hedonic range of, say, +70 to +100 would have steeper peaks and valleys than Darwinian life with its hedonic range of, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10. Maybe a transhuman civilisation with a default hedonic range of, say, +90 to +100 is preferable to a sharper hedonic contrast. It’s debatable. The main advantage of citing a wider hedonic range now is to spike the guns of bioconservatives who warn of a homogenous future society with reduced neurodiversity. All kinds of superhappiness regime will be genetically optional. The worst of posthuman life can still feel richer and more significant than human “peak experiences”. Transhumanists celebrate civilised diversity, not diversity per se. A plea for “information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss” sounds wordy. But such a formulation is more illuminating than a simplistic slogan such as “Superhappiness!” See too the Experience Machine argument. Hedonic recalibration means that fiture civilisations won’t need to choose between blissful escapism and gritty “real life” in basement reality.

    The idea that every moment of re-engineered life could be subjectively valuable is unconvincing, on the face of it at least. Intuitively, a hedonic dip will be experienced as disappointing, in some sense, regardless of your genetically constrained hedonic range. Life’s lows allow us to appreciate “peak experiences” all the more keenly. And indeed, our successors may experience the analogues of disappointment, even if experience below “hedonic zero” is inconceivably alien. Yet without the unpleasant textures of subzero states, all that will survive are fake, functional analogues of nasty Darwinian emotions, not their squalid “raw feels”. Perhaps compare the difference between nociception and pain. Or consider what today passes for sensual pleasure. Lovemaking between two sensitive lovers has its peaks and troughs. If done well, then lovemaking is generically pleasurable throughout. The dips aren't as ecstatic as the peaks. Yet to claim that the dips in pleasure are “disappointing” would be stretching the term past breaking point. We can’t begin to imagine posthuman gradients of bliss, whether sexual, social, intellectual, aesthetic, meditative, spiritual, psychedelic, or modes of well-being that haven’t yet been named or conceived. Posthuman existence is likely to be high-functioning and generically wonderful.

    With the exception of classical utilitarians, transhumanists don’t urge maxing out on happiness (cf. a utilitronium shockwave). Nonetheless, the question is still worth pursuing. Would we fail to appreciate unvarying bliss if we’d never experienced anything else? Perhaps the easiest way to tackle this question is to contrast tragic cases of unrelieved neuropathic pain or unipolar depression. Whereas most chronic depressives and pain sufferers experience gradations of distress, victims of an unremitting intensity of pain or despair don’t experience suffering as somehow less ghastly in virtue of their lack of relief. Perpetual neuropathic bliss is just the other side of the coin (cf. What if you do not like heaven?).

    For my part, I think our overriding ethical obligation is to end pain and suffering thoughout the living world. The rest is mere detail – whether the upshot is pathological euphoria or superintelligent bliss.

  • Could quantum computing cause sentience in A.I.?
  • "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness."
    (Dostoevsky)
    Let’s assume that physicists are correct about the properties of matter and energy. Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. If so, then building a 10-qubit, 100-qubit or 1000-qubit quantum computer makes no difference. Regardless whether we consider adiabatic quantum annealing technology (cf. D-Wave) or true universal quantum computers (cf. Quantum Turing machine), i.e. machines that can be configured or programmed arbitrarily like a universal digital Turing machine, then on standard physicalist assumptions, i.e. no “strong” emergence, quantum computing cannot generate sentience. Indeed, if physicists are correct about the properties of matter and energy, then classically parallel connectionist systems and serial programmable digital computers can’t generate sentience either. If we’re really on the brink of artificial general intelligence (AGI), as AI boosters claim, then the future belongs to superintelligent zombies.

    So what kind of information-processor are biological minds? Is sentience just some sort of weird implementation detail of organic wetware? (cf. How does sentience benefit survival and why is it developed?) Experts differ wildly. Eliminativists claim we aren’t really sentient, a heroic feat of self-deception few can emulate. Dualists like David Chalmers claim that monistic physicalism can’t be saved; if so, then all scientific bets are off. Something causes epiphenomenalists to talk about the causal impotence of consciousness, presumably not their experiences. Mysterianism may or may not be true; in common with radical philosophical scepticism, it’s sterile.

    Alternatives?
    Not many, and they’re all crazy. On one view, our robustly classical-seeming world-simulations are what a quantum mind feels like “from the inside”. On this story, sentience is the stuff of the world, the essence of the physical, but only phenomenally-bound sentience can constitute a mind. To anyone familiar with decoherence, this quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism is insane. But unlike the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory, the conjecture doesn’t rely on any exotic new principle of physics to work. Quite the contrary. Wavefunction monism just assumes that quantum mechanics is formally complete and asks what follows.

    If confirmed by interferometry (cf. The Binding Problem), this conjecture predicts that existing artificial quantum computers already support rudimentary sentience (cf. Google thinks it’s close to “quantum supremacy”). By contrast, classically parallel connectionist systems, classical programmable digital computers, and classical silicon robots are micro-experiential zombies with no more sentience than a rock.

  • What will the world be like if animals stopped killing each other?
  • Today, we demonise human predators who prey on young, innocent and vulnerable victims, while lionising non-human predators who do likewise. In future, we may choose to civilise the biosphere instead:
    Why can't all animals be herbivores?

    Naïvely, a peaceful living world without predation and starvation is a recipe for overpopulation, ecological degradation and Malthusian catastrophe. In practice, compassionate stewardship of tomorrow’s wildlife parks will involve fertility-regulation via e.g. cross-species immunocontraception:
    Should we neuter wild animals?

    Is it morally wrong to interfere with Nature?
    Well, humans already massively intervene in the living world. What’s at stake are the principles that govern our interventions. Ethically speaking, what is the optimal level of violence and terror in free-living populations of non-humans? In the long run, zero – at least in my view. Wild animal suffering is utterly pointless. Unfortunately, re-engineering the biosphere poses many challenges:
    Do non-human animals feel pain as intensely as humans do?

    In the meantime, human animals kill non-human animals for reasons of taste, tradition and profit. But the imminent cultured meat revolution heralds a transition to global veganism and invitrotarianism. Eventually, the killing will stop:
    Do vegans think that they can convert the whole world to veganism?

  • Do vegans think that they can convert the whole world to veganism?
  • The whole world can be converted to veganism and invitrotarianism (cf. “New Zealand PM warns of 'existential threat' to meat industry of synthetic burgers”). The big unknown is timescales (cf. Cultured meat). How many decades must pass before the last factory farms and slaughterhouses are shut? (cf. New Poll: 47 Percent of Americans Want to Shut Down Slaughterhouses) Will a global end to industrialised animal-abuse happen even this century?

    Cynics about human nature typically favour a later date. My reasons for predicting the second half of this century stem partly from crude technological determinism, partly from signalling theory (cf. Virtue signalling), and partly from a sense that most humans are callous rather than malevolent. Despite countless counterexamples from the Roman colosseum to bloodsports, most humans don’t celebrate the suffering of non-humans. Suffering is a by-product, not the goal. When in vitro animal products are available of a taste, texture and price comparable to butchered animal flesh, most consumers will choose the cruelty-free option. Indeed, many if not most invitrotarian shoppers will be morally indignant at holdouts and signal their virtue accordingly. Political lobbying and legislation should do the rest. Pro-slaughterhouse rallies will be few and far between.

    Perhaps the biggest marketing challenge of cultured meat will be persuading consumers that in vitro products are “natural”, i.e. not genetically engineered. For sure, all kinds of genetic enhancements of nutritional value, taste, and texture will soon be technically feasible. Such enhancements are optional. The hysteria over genetically-modified crops (GMCs) suggests that touting benefits of their cultured animal tissue counterparts would be unwise. The in vitro meat revolution can be accelerated by stressing how supermarket in vitro products are genetically identical to the flesh of slaughtered animals, whether pigs, dogs, chickens – or indeed humans (cf. Would You Eat Human Meat Grown in a Lab?). The revolution will benefit human and non-human animals alike: Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria and Factory Farming.

    A happy tale?
    In a sense. But decades of horror still lie ahead (cf. Do non-human animals feel pain as intensely as humans do?). Billions of defenceless creatures, as sentient as small human children, will be abused and killed for morally frivolous reasons. Plant-based products are already available of a taste, texture and price comparable to butchered animal flesh. The best time to go vegan is now.

  • What is "nothing"? According to a popular theory everything (i.e. the universe, space, time, energy, matter) came from "nothing." What could this nothing be, if time does not exist and space does not exist?
  • A good question. Like the number zero in mathematics, the meaning of “nothing” is surprisingly elusive. What would non-existence – the notional alternative to existence – consist in? Metaphysical nihilism is hard to articulate. The difficulty of specifying the truth-conditions for an absence of anything whatsoever is a tantalising clue to why there is something.

    Here are five problems. I’m curious whether they are explained by a single logico-physical principle.

    1) Why does anything exist at all? ( cf. Why is there something rather than nothing?)

    2)Where did the information in the world originate? Naïvely, the world has a vast abundance of information, physically capped by the Bekenstein bound. According to quantum physics, information can neither be created nor destroyed (cf. Unitarity (physics). So what created information in the first place?

    3) What explains Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”? More specifically, why does our best mathematical description of the world, quantum mechanics (QM), need the complex numbers?

    4) The measurement problem. No-collapse QM suggests that the superposition principle never breaks down. Therefore “cat states” ought to be ubiquitous (cf. Wigner's friend). So why do observers seemingly experience definite outcomes, i.e. the apparently non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement to, e.g. a live cat, or the perceived detection of a well-localised particle absorbed at the screen in a double-slit experiment? (cf. Can anyone ever explain the 'measurement problem' in quantum physics?)

    5) The binding problem. Why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies? Even if the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience rather than insentience (cf. the Hard Problem), our minds should be physically impossible. The ostensible “structural mismatch” between our phenomenal world-simulations and the CNS drives scientifically-informed philosophers like David Chalmers to abandon physicalism for dualism.

    CONJECTURE. The five mysteries have a common solution. The total information content of reality = 0. “Nothing” is zero information, a timeless state in which nothing happens, there is no unique future, no unique past, and no definite classical outcomes. Entropy = 0 (sic). There are no “facts” and no “observers” – as distinct from neocortical quantum superpositions subjectively experienced as classical world-simulations populated by robustly classical objects. We are living in an inconceivably vast cosmic superposition: the quantum version of the Library of Babel.

    Talk of a “zero ontology” (the term is due to philosopher Arthur Witherall) sounds poetic, metaphorical and ominously Zen-like. Yet all we’re doing here is taking the formalism of unitary-only QM at face value. Hugh Everett wasn’t seeking to dissolve the mystery of why anything exists when he dropped the collapse postulate, any more than Feynman developed the path integral formulation of quantum field theory (the “sum-over-histories” approach) in pursuit of speculative metaphysics. Likewise, investigators working on the black hole information paradox weren’t investigating whether reality has any information at all. But if the information content of reality is necessarily zero, then this cancellation is just what we should “philosophically” expect. Or as Guy Blaylock pus it, "The many-worlds interpretation is not only counterfactually indefinite, it is factually indefinite as well.” (The EPR paradox, Bell’s inequality, and the question of locality, https://arxiv.org/pdf/0902.3827.pdf). The creation of facts would require information. So if a zero ontology is true, there are no “facts”.

    Retrodictions aren’t predictions. How might we properly test a zero ontology? This is what’s so disconcerting. If the net information content of reality exceeds zero, as we naïvely suppose, then such non-zero information content should be trivially easy to demonstrate: behold, a cat! Suggestively, it’s not. However, a respectable scientific hypothesis should not only be empirically adequate; it should offer novel, precise and surprising empirically falsifiable predictions.

    I can think of various possible experimental refutations. A molecular matter-wave interferometry experiment to test the craziest prediction might be most convincing because almost no one who understands decoherence in the warm, wet CNS will expect a positive result. If there are no definite outcomes, merely coherent neuronal superpositions experienced as definite outcomes in a globally informationless reality, then the non-classical interference signature should tell us. Failure of interferometry to detect a perfect structural match would falsify the conjecture.

    DEFEATING THE EXPLANATORY REGRESS. Any purported explanation of existence (e.g. God, or a Simulator) would seem to fall foul of an infinite explanatory regress. What explains the Creator or His secular counterpart? What explains any supposed explanation? And so on. Religious believers may respond by saying that God is "self-caused". The risk here is being seduced by an empty verbal placebo.

    Many scientists and philosophers simply accept defeat. If metaphysical nihilism had been true, then there wouldn't be anything to explain. If there hadn’t been anything at all, then there would be no explanatory regress to overcome. For reasons we don’t understand, metaphysical nihilism is false. So an infinite regress seems inescapable.

    However, the only scenario that would have cheated the infinite explanatory regress once again holds a possible clue to where the explanation lies. Just as a convergence of evidence from information theory to quantum cosmology suggests that something analogous to our pre-theoretic concept of "nothing" is the case, i.e. the net information content of reality is zero, maybe the analogy extends to defeating the infinite explanatory regress as well. Something analogous to metaphysical nihilism is true. Likewise, zero information is the only state of affairs that doesn't call for further explanation: zero information is the default condition. There’s no information to explain. Perhaps here lies the explanation-space where we should look for an answer, even though the answer itself may be beyond our comprehension.

    PURE NOTHING? Anyhow, suspend disbelief for a moment. Suppose the conjecture is true. In a sense we don’t adequately fathom, suppose the information content of reality isn’t almost zero, as physicist Max Tegmark proposes, but exactly zero. If so, then one wants to protest in exasperation: “Nothing” formalised as a perfect complex sphere of Hilbert space isn’t, well, nothing.
    Or is it?
    I don’t know.

  • Are you aware of your surroundings?
  • No. I live in a world of my own. Evolution did not design the mind to be aware of the meninges and the inside of a skull, nor of the cerebrospinal fluid that optimises the environment where its world-simulations unfold (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?).

    Of course, like most people, I’m prone to self-deception and delusion. A lot of the time, I think I perceive what’s going on in the wider world. But what passes for one’s surroundings are patterns of neuronal firings in the occipital cortex that each of us is hardwired to misinterpret as mind-independent reality.

  • Did Immanuel Kant say that reality as we perceive it is not the ultimate reality?
  • “What might be said of things in themselves, separated from all relationship to our senses, remains for us absolutely unknown.”
    (Immanuel Kant)
    Yes. According to Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781), your mind does not distort and refract your perception of the external world. What you apprehend as the external world is a facet of your mental life. Everything from your innermost feelings to the seemingly distant horizon is part of the architecture of your mind. The world you nominally perceive is autobiographical (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Your mind is trapped, inescapably, in a world of phenomena. The transcendental world of things-in-themselves (Kant’s Ding an sich) is not perceptually accessible. The veil of perception is more of a wall – or rather, the interior of a transcendental skull. Not just Locke’s secondary properties (cf. primary/secondary quality distinction), but also the classical “primary” properties of material objects are internal to your psyche (cf. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science, 1783). And indeed modern physics, i.e. quantum mechanics without the ad hoc collapse postulate, confirms that classical worlds are phantoms of the mind.

    Kant claims that the nature of mind-independent reality – the noumenal world as distinct from your phenomenal world-simulation – is not just perceptually inaccessible but intellectually unknowable too. This view is more troublesome. For instance, when your phenomenal body-image eats phenomenal food, aren’t noumenal nutrients afterwards incorporated into your mind/brain? Edible knowledge, so to speak, though alas not edible wisdom. Unlike idealist Bishop Berkeley, Kant doesn’t dispute the existence of a world beyond appearances. However, Kant’s dichotomy between phenomena and noumena prompted Jacobi’s lament that “without that presupposition [of things-in-themselves] I could not enter into the system, but with it I could not stay within it” (David Hume Uber Den Glauben: Oder Idealismus Und Realismus (1787) p. 336). Indeed, Kant’s “Copernican revolution”, i.e. the subject rather than the object is pivotal to knowledge, makes not just the external world but also semantic meaning deeply problematic. As Kant argues, our minds categorically structure their phenomenal worlds in similar ways, including our experience of space and time. Yet human language is not innate. So how is semantic meaning possible if our minds each instantiate private world-simulations rather than share common access to a public world? As the later Wittgenstein stressed, isn’t language a pre-eminently social institution that one learns on the basis of public criteria of usage?

    Many efforts have been made to re-interpret Kant as saying something else. The traditional phenomenalist (and textually better supported) “two worlds” reading of Kant has been challenged by variants of the one-world/two-aspects view most commonly associated with Kant scholar Henry Allison. Yet according to Kant, your phenomenal world is not mind-independent reality. The existence of the mind-independent world and the countless other phenomenal world-simulations it supports is just a theoretical inference. The language of “world-simulation” that I’m using here is distinctly contemporary; but the underlying insight (and its Kantian spin) can be traced back via poets (“The brain is wider than the sky…”) and philosophers to antiquity (cf. Steven Lehar “The Two Worlds of Reality”, 2002).

    Was Kant right?
    Kant said a lot, mostly in dense, complicated German. Here, I’m cherry-picking what I find interesting. There are good scientific reasons from the neuroscience of perception to the foundations of quantum mechanics (cf. Wigner's friend) to believe in world-simulationism rather than perceptual realism. Only inferential realism about the external world (and maybe Everett’s multiverse) is scientifically tenable. But Kant also prefigured what is today known as the binding problem, and in particular, the problem of global binding as distinct from the local binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into individual perceptual objects. How can Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception”, now better known as the unity of perception and the unity of the self, be reconciled with modern neuroscience? (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and Hard Problem of consciousness?). When awake, you instantiate a phenomenally-bound world-simulation, not billions of pixels of neuronal “mind-dust”. Phenomenal binding is exceedingly fitness-enhancing, as its rare disorders (e.g. simultanagnosia, akinetopsia) attest. Arguably, non-psychotic binding is what consciousness is evolutionarily “for”. Worldmaking is genetically adaptive. Yet according to neuroscience, you are a bunch of effectively decohered, membrane-bound nerve cells that communicate with each other across chemical and electrical synapses. So how can the manifest phenomenal unity of our minds and their world-simulations be explained without abandoning not just materialism, but also physicalism and the ontological unity of science?

    Secondly, is noumenal reality truly a complete mystery, as Kant claims, and outspoken materialists like Stephen Hawking implicitly acknowledge? What Kant calls the noumenal essence of the world, Hawking calls the mysterious “fire” in the equations (“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” A Brief History of Time, 1988). Idealists claim the noumenal essence of the world is experiential; Kantians claim the noumenal essence is unknowable; materialists assume it’s non-experiential. I don’t know who is right; but we are up to our transcendental necks in metaphysics. Can the metaphysical impasse be broken?

    Recent decades have seen a revival of attempts to “turn Kant on his head”. Maybe we can know the essence of reality. According to this view, dating back via Bertrand Russell ultimately to Schopenhauer, and championed today by analytic philosophers such as Galen Strawson (cf. “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?” 2006), there is one small part of the noumenal world that you do know as it is in itself, and not at one remove. Your mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs discloses a tiny part of the noumenal essence of the world, the “fire” in the equations. Your phenomena are noumena. Contra Hawking and the materialists, the intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential.

    According to this view, both solipsism and Berkeleyan idealism are false. Realism and physicalism are true. The world, as distinct from your autobiographical world-simulation, is around 13.8 billion years old. Formally, the universe is exhaustively described by the equations of mathematical physics, more specifically quantum field theory or its stringy generalisation. But the intrinsic nature of the physical that the equations of QFT describe is experiential: fields of sentience rather than insentience. Misnamed “p-zombies” are impossible because they are unphysical (cf. Is Science intrinsically physicalist or materialist?).

    Traditional idealism is untestable and hence, by Popperian criteria, unscientific. Yet non-materialist physicalism is experimentally falsifiable – and may indeed be confounded by next-generation interferometry, though I tentatively argue otherwise. If dualism is false and monistic physicalism is true, then at temporally fine-grained resolutions, one of the basic assumptions of contemporary neuroscience, namely the effective classicality of neurons, must be false. Neuroscanning suggests at least a partial structural mismatch between Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception” and the CNS. Phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors is classically impossible, as investigators from William James to David Chalmers have recognised.

    And what if classical neuroscience is vindicated? (cf. What is a quantum mind?). If so, then how can monistic physicalism explain that "The synthetic unity of consciousness is therefore an objective condition of all cognition, not merely something I myself need in order to cognise an object but rather something under which every intuition must stand in order to become an object for me, since in any other, and without this synthesis, the manifold would not be united in one consciousness" (Kant, Critique, p. 249), i.e. the phenomenal unity of mind?

    Well, if the “structural mismatch” is real, then I’ve no idea how to refute Chalmersian dualism.

  • How would you argue that negative utilitarianism is ethically correct??
  • “Pleasure is the greatest incentive to evil.”
    (Plato)
    Arguing for negative utilitarianism (NU) may be counterproductive – and hence not NU. The tools of biotechnology can potentially create a world without suffering, as NUs urge. Most secular and religious opinion worldwide gives some weight – and often much weight – to reducing involuntary suffering. No one need be a utilitarian of any kind to believe that we should build a civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent well-being. Critically, hedonic recalibration can be preference-preserving. Therefore, cherished traditional values (with certain exceptions) can be kept intact even as hedonic set-points are ratcheted up. Indeed, a “triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness is (IMO) entirely sociologically credible: the biggest uncertainty is timescales. Transhumanist technologies can deliver what NUs advocate, even though posthuman civilisation won’t be based on an ethic of NU. Instead of contributing to the goal of eradicating suffering, NU philosophising may just be a distraction.

    Why such reticence? Why have e.g. the authors of the Negative Utilitarian FAQ opted for anonymity? If you believe that your ethical theory is correct (cf. meta-ethics?), shouldn’t you be shouting your values from the rooftops? After all, the original negative utilitarian was Gautama Buddha (“I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering”), the epitome of compassion. Buddhists don’t apologise for being Buddhist.

    The problem is that NU critics don’t focus on the compassionate commitment to relieving suffering that underpins secular NU ethics. Instead, almost all contemporary critics home in on a thought-experiment: the supposed reductio ad absurdum of NU (cf. R.N. Smart's reply to Popper). NU allegedly dictates destroying the Earth with a planetary Doomsday device – presumably some sort of multi-gigaton cobalt-salted superweapon. Sterilising the planet would end suffering for good. Technically, thermonuclear options are a quicker and cleaner way to end life than notional ethical bioweapons or e.g. multiple independently-targeted synthetic gene drives aimed at the photosynthetic base of the food chain, which could painfully eradicate only multicellular life. Whatever the implementation details of the disinfection procedure – this is not a how-to manual for terrorists – the issue soon becomes fanciful. Homo sapiens, evolved under pressure of natural selection, won’t consent to engineering Doomsday. For evolutionary reasons, status quo bias is deeply rooted and pervasive. Nature throws up countless Woody Allens (“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it's all over much too soon"). The practice and ideology of natalism is endemic. Breeding and the urge to propagate are probably ineradicable, not least on account of selection pressure (cf. What are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/"suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). NUs would do better to argue that Darwinian life is biological malware to be reprogrammed, not a malignant cancer to be eradicated. Even the language of genetic reform needs to be softened as appropriate (cf. Is eugenics moral?). Try telling some proud mum that she’s spawned a piece of biological malware in urgent need of a genetic rewrite and you’ll get a dusty response. Global apocalyptic solutions tend to be even less well-received.

    The supposed reductio of NU has complications. For instance, the discovery of pain-ridden primordial life within our cosmological horizon might in theory call for cosmic rescue or eradication missions. So perhaps NUs should bide their time before doing anything irrevocable. Maybe intelligent moral agents should be laying the foundations via AI and robotics of cosmic stewardship to ensure that primordial Darwinian life and suffering can never recur within the scope of rational moral agency – though the challenges of responsible stewardship of even our Local Group of galaxies are technically daunting. Yet whatever the scope of the mission, NUs should really – according to the supposed reductio – be strategizing ways to extinguish life wherever it is found, not to improve it. And even if the increasingly plausible Rare Earth hypothesis is false and cosmic rescue missions are technically feasible, the historical record suggests that humans or our successors are more likely to spread suffering across our Hubble volume than act to prevent it. So rational NUs should be working, urgently, to exterminate life on Earth before the brief technical window of opportunity closes – whether burrowing into existential risk institutes, penetrating DARPA, or doing stuff not responsibly discussed. Even self-sustaining bases on the Moon and Mars will make eradicating life (and hence suffering) far harder. In short, consistent, intelligent, high IQ-AQ NUs are (what non-NUs would regard as) potential super-terrorists, not super-ethicists. All this talk of death and destruction means that we’ve come a long way from compassion for all suffering beings. Philosopher Toby Ord describes NU as a “devastatingly callous” theory (cf. Why I'm Not a Negative Utilitarian).

    NU counterarguments to the Doomsday reductio are possible. For example, enshrining in law the sanctity of human and nonhuman animal life is arguably indirectly NU (cf. What is high-tech Jainism?), hence really NU simpliciter. Compare how classical utilitarians don’t believe that e.g. doctors should forswear the Hippocratic oath for an ostensibly utilitarian distribution of patient organs. Given the frailty of human character, treating life as inviolate normally leads to better consequences by the lights of NU and CU alike. Also, negative utilitarians are ethically opposed to even the mildest discomfort or distress. So if a policy option causes discomfort or distress, for example talk of Doomsday devices or simply the idea that you won’t be able to enjoy the good things that life has to offer, then other things being equal, it’s not NU. For NUs want to abolish even the slightest twinge of disappointment.

    Such arguments won’t be persuasive to most people. NU will always be a marginal position (cf. Negative utilitarianism - Wikipedia).

    In contrast to the (purported) reductio of NU as a recipe for Armageddon, the policy prescriptions of classical utilitarianism (CU) are supposedly closer – if not exactly close – to commonsense. Traditional “hedonistic” CU gives equal weight to pleasure and pain. In moral philosophy, conformity to intuition is often accounted a virtue, despite the toxically polluted evolutionary well of our moral intuitions, and the dismal track-record of commonsense in the sciences. At least for humans – if not our nonhuman victims – a watered-down classical utilitarianism is the dominant secular ethic in academia and Western society at large, though mitigating suffering often in practice takes precedence over promoting happiness. Thus even criticisms of CU are typically couched in indirectly CU terms, namely the bad consequences for aggregate well-being that would follow if nominally CU policies were strictly applied. The ethical dilemmas of CU are widely acknowledged. Whether as a theory of value or a decision procedure, CU is rarely loved. Yet almost no one thinks that applied CU poses an existential risk to civilisation.

    Such risk-assessment may be misplaced. The disguised implications of CU are apocalyptic. Unless we suppose superintelligence will have a cognitive blindspot, a CU superintelligence would not preserve complex human civilisation (cf. How can one pursue eternal happiness?).

    This point is worth amplifying. Anyone who believes that pain-ridden Darwinian life should be retired soon discovers that arguing about existential risk with CU life-lovers is futile. By contrast, highlighting the existential risk to intelligent life posed by any pleasure-maximising ethic can command attention because the debate is framed on the classical utilitarian’s own terms. Whereas NUs can support replacing the biology of pain and suffering with a civilisation based on gradients of bliss, CUs are committed, ultimately, to a civilisation-obliterating utilitronium shockwave. Utilitronium is matter and energy optimised for pure bliss.

    Naively, a supercivilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +90 – +100 compared to the schematic -10 – 0 – +10 of Darwinian life might seem ethically acceptable to NUs and CUs alike. Subjectively, superhappy life will be sublime. But to a self-consistent CU, the preservation of rich, diverse, superhumanly wonderful states in the hedonic +90s will be unethical. Anything that falls short of unadulterated euphoria is morally indefensible. According to CU, matter and energy should be optimised for pure bliss, not polluted with wanton complexity. Rationally, the long-term goal of CU should be equivalent to an all-consuming cosmic orgasm. According to CU, positive value should maximised, not diluted or corrupted in any way.

    In response, classical utilitarians would presumably protest that they are not super-terrorists plotting to destroy civilisation with a utilitronium shockwave. Quite so. But then neither are Buddhists or NUs.

    More practically, IMO effective altruists would do best to use the term “suffering-focused ethics” in preference to NU (cf. Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? by Magnus Vinding). No one should feel that signing up to the abolitionist project entails a commitment to any specific moral theory, any more than support for surgical anaesthesia entails signing up for an ethic of Buddhism or NU. The need for pain-free surgery is (now) obvious (cf. Utopian surgery? The case against anaesthesia in surgery, dentistry and childbirth). One day, getting rid of experience below hedonic zero will seem as commonsensical as pain-free surgery. Alas, we’ve some way to go.

  • What is the purpose of the existence of consciousness?
  • Let’s assume naturalism. Consciousness isn’t a gift from God (or the Devil). Any serious explanation of the adaptive role of consciousness must account for why a notional p-zombie couldn’t do just as well without the supposedly fitness-enhancing trait in question. Talk of “p-zombies” isn’t some pointless thought-experiment dreamed up by philosophers. Nor is it just some idle sceptical worry. Rather, if the basic properties of matter and energy are exactly as physicists and chemists claim, we should all be p-zombies. In others words, if we assume mainstream “materialist” physicalism, i.e. QFT or its extension describes fields of insentience, consciousness should be impossible – and if not impossible, causally redundant.

    For instance, the evolutionary purpose of pain might seem self-evident. The nasty experience of pain helps living organisms avoid and respond to noxious stimuli. Rare cases of people with congenital insensitivity to pain make it intuitively obvious that the ghastly “raw feels” of pain must be adaptive. Talk of “purpose” is harmless here, because teleological language of purposes and functions can be scientifically cashed out in causal terms. However, as it stands, the commonsense view of the function of pain doesn’t work. Neuroscience reduces to chemistry which reduces to physics. Causality doesn’t operate between levels of description, a mere human convenience. Reality has only one ontological level. Scientists believe that they can give a causally sufficient account of why a neurotypical organism withdraws her hand or tentacle from the fire without invoking the subjective experience of pain at all. On the materialist story, subjective experience is causally superfluous. The “raw feels” of consciousness aren't doing anything. If the “raw feels” aren’t physically doing anything, then they haven’t been selected for, as distinct from merely selected. Perhaps compare silicon robots with a capacity for nociception. Notionally “painting on” nasty subjective experiences from noxious or potentially fitness-reducing stimuli wouldn’t enhance the functional capacities of non-biological robots. If designed and programmed to compete and replicate, silicon robots wouldn’t spontaneously evolve phenomenal pain, nor (on the face of it) would phenomenal pain serve any non-redundant purpose if they did.

    If true, the causal impotence or redundancy of consciousness would be good news. Its uselessness would mean that advanced human civilisation can cleanly and comprehensively replace the nasty side of life with programmable digital prostheses without loss of function. Pain, sadness, anxiety, fear, disappointment, and other unpleasant Darwinian emotions can all be functionally offloaded to insentient digital surrogates, allowing sentient beings to enjoy only the good stuff in life. Paradise!

    My view?
    If consciousness were causally or functionally impotent, then you couldn’t even ask your question. Humans couldn’t contemplate whether to replace pain with a more civilised signalling system. For unpleasant experience would lack the causal capacity to inspire its own replacement (cf. Epiphenomenalism). I’m all for offloading the nasty side of life onto smart prostheses. But there are features of our minds that can’t be functionally replicated in silico. The workarounds will be non-trivial. This is quite a strong claim (cf. the Church–Turing thesis). Yet as posed by materialist metaphysicians, the Hard Problem of consciousness is insoluble. So I investigate (as distinct from advocate) non-materialist physicalism. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then there is no Hard Problem: experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. There is no problem of the non-reductant causal efficacy of consciousness either. All the physical, and only the physical, has causal power. Perhaps see: Through what mechanism could consciousness be causally effective?

    By itself, such causal explanation leaves the emergence of functionality unexplained. Non-materialist physicalism makes the challenge of understanding the functional role of consciousness in biological minds all the more acute. Although causally effective – it’s the essence of the physical – why isn't consciousness as functionally incidental to our nervous systems as “raw feels” would be to Deep Blue, AlphaGo or Watson? Deep Blue, AlphaGo, Watson (etc) will perform functionally exactly as programmed, or in the case of connectionist networks, as they are “trained up”, irrespective of whether fields of sentience of insentience are the ultimate stuff of reality. The truth or falsity of panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is of no more practical relevance than whether software is executed on processors made of silicon or gallium arsenide. It’s not substrate that determines functional role, but software (cf. Universal Turing machine).

    Or so the story goes. However, there is one taken-for-granted feature of biological consciousness that is fitness-enhancing: non-psychotic phenomenal binding (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?). Classical Turing machines can’t bind. You can; and it’s vastly adaptive. You aren't a micro-experiential zombie composed of billion of pixels of distributed neuronal feature-processors, i.e. a pack of decohered classical neurons. You are “awake”: a fleetingly unified subject of experience. Crudely speaking, the phenomenal world-simulation that you are now running – naively, the external world, actually, your biological mind – is the evolutionary “purpose” of consciousness. Phenomenal world-making is enormously fitness-enhancing. Hence the proliferation of classical-seeming world-simulations since the late pre-Cambrian.

    The snag? Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, i.e. even if the equations of physics describe fields of sentience, classical neuroscience does not account for how phenomenal binding is possible. Phenomenal binding is so ubiquitous that ordinarily we don’t even recognise the mystery. Right now, your CNS “should” be at most a micro-experiential zombie, just as you are while dreamlessly asleep. Synchronous activation of distributed neuronal feature-processors doesn’t by itself suffice to bind if physicalism is true. When you experience a perceptual object, the synchronous feature-activation detected by neuroscanning is no more sufficient for unitary experience than the co-ordinated motion of a Mexican wave.

    The classical impossibility of phenomenal binding drives some philosophers like David Chalmers to dualism, which does not promise an evolutionary explanation of consciousness. Classical physics, however, is a false theory of the world. Reality is quantum to its core. So instead, I explore a radically conservative conjecture that is empirically adequate. With difficulty, it’s experimentally testable.
    Is it true? Heaven knows, probably not! I’m still curious to find out.

  • Why don't more effective altruists work on the Hedonistic Imperative?
  • Life could be wonderful. Genetically phasing out suffering in favour of hardwired happiness ought to be mainstream. Today, it’s a fringe view. It’s worth asking why. Perhaps the first scientifically-literate blueprint for a world without suffering was written by Lewis Mancini. “Brain stimulation and the genetic engineering of a world without pain” was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 1990. As far as I can tell, the paper sunk almost without a trace. Ignorant of Mancini’s work, I wrote The Hedonistic Imperative (HI) in 1995. I’ve plugged away at the theme ever since. Currently, a small, scattered minority of researchers believe that replacing the biology of suffering with gradients of genetically preprogrammed well-being is not just ethical but obviously so.

    Alas, perceptions of obviousness vary. Technically, at least, the abolitionist project can no longer easily be dismissed as science fiction. The twenty-first century has already witnessed the decoding of the human genome, the development and imminent commercialisation of cultured meat, the dawn of CRISPR genome-editing and the promise of synthetic gene drives. Identification of alleles and allelic combinations governing everything from pain-sensitivity to hedonic range and hedonic set-points is complementing traditional twin studies. The high genetic loading of subjective well-being and mental ill-health is being deciphered. The purely technical arguments against the genetic feasibility of creating a happy living world are shrinking. But genetic status quo bias is deeply entrenched. The sociopolitical obstacles to reprogramming the biosphere are daunting.

    You ask specifically about effective altruists (EAs). Some effective altruists (cf. Effective Altruism: How Can We Best Help Others? by Magnus Vinding) do explore biological-genetic solutions to complement socio-economic reform and other environmental interventions. Most don’t. Indeed, a significant minority of EAs expressly urge a nonbiological focus for EA. For example, see Why I Don't Focus On The Hedonistic Imperative by the influential EA Brian Tomasik. I can’t offer a complete explanation, but I think these facts are relevant:

    1) Timescales. Lewis Mancini reckons that completion of the abolitionist project will take thousands of years. HI predicts that the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence, perhaps in some obscure marine invertebrate. If, fancifully, consensus existed for a global species-project, then 100-150 years (?) might be a credible forecast. Alas, such a timescale is hopelessly unrealistic. No such consensus exists or is plausibly in prospect. For sure, ask people a question framed on the lines of “Do you agree with Gautama Buddha, ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’?” and assent might be quite high. Some kind of quantified, cross-cultural study of radical Buddhist or Benthamite abolitionism would be interesting. Yet most people balk at what the scientific implementation of such a vision practically entails – if they reflect on abolitionist bioethics at all. “That’s just Brave New World” is a common response among educated Westerners to the idea of engineering “unnatural” well-being. Typically, EAs are focused on measurable results in foreseeable timeframes in areas where consensus is broad and deep, for instance the elimination of vector-borne disease. Almost everyone agrees that eliminating malaria will make the world a better place. Malaria can be eradicated this century.

    2) The Hedonic Treadmill. In recent decades, popular awareness of the hedonic treadmill has grown. Sadly, most nonbiological interventions to improve well-being may not have the dramatic long-term impact we naïvely hope. However, awareness of the genetic underpinnings of the hedonic treadmill is sketchy. Knowledge of specific interventions we can plan to subvert its negative feedback mechanisms is sketchier still. Compared to more gross and visible ills, talk of “low hedonic set-points” (etc) is nebulous. Be honest, which would you personally choose if offered: a vast national lottery win (cf. How Winning The Lottery Affects Happiness) or a modestly higher hedonic set-point? Likewise, the prospect of making everyone on Earth prosperous sounds more effectively altruistic than raising their hedonic defaults – even if push-button hedonic uplift were now feasible, which it isn’t, or at least not without socially unacceptable consequences.

    3) The Spectre of Eugenics. Any confusion between the racial hygiene policies of the Third Reich and the project of genetically phasing out suffering in all sentient beings ought to be laughable. Nonetheless, many people recoil at the prospect of “designer babies”. Sooner or later, the ”e”-word crops up in discussions of genetic remediation and enhancement. If we assume that bioconservative attitudes to baby-making will prevail worldwide indefinitely, and the reproductive revolution extends at best only to a minority of prospective parents, then the abolitionist project will never happen. What we call the Cambrian Explosion might alternatively be classified as the Suffering Explosion. If we don’t tackle the biological-genetic roots of suffering at source – “eugenics”, if you will – then pain and suffering will proliferate until Doomsday. Without eugenics, the world’s last unpleasant experience may occur millions or even billions of years hence.

    4) Core Values. Self-identified effective altruists range from ardent life lovers focused on existential risks, AGI and the hypothetical Intelligence Explosion to radical anti-natalists and negative utilitarians committed to suffering-focused ethics (cf. What are the main differences between the anti-natalism/efilism community and the negative utilitarian/”suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). There’s no inherent conflict with HI at either extreme. On the one hand, phasing out the biology of suffering can potentially minimise existential risk. Crudely, the more we love life, the more we want to preserve it. On the opposite wing of EA, radical anti-natalists oppose reproduction because they care about suffering, not because of opposition to new babies per se. Technically speaking, CRISPR babies could be little bundles of joy – as distinct from today’s tragic genetic experiments. In practice, however, life-loving EAs are suspicious of (notionally) button-pressing negative utilitarians, whereas radical anti-natalists view worldwide genetic engineering as even more improbable than their preferred option of voluntary human extinction.

    5) Organisation and Leadership. Both secular and religious organizations exist whose tenets include the outright abolition of suffering. EAs can and do join such groups. However, sadly, I don’t know of a single organisation dedicated to biological-genetic solutions to the problem of suffering. Among transhumanists, for instance, radical life-extension and the prospect of posthuman superintelligence loom larger than biohappiness – though article 7 of the Transhumanist Declaration is admirably forthright: a commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Also, I think we need star power: the blessing of some charismatic billionaire or large-than-life media celebrity. “Bill Gates says let’s use biotechnology to phase out the genetic basis of suffering” would be a breakthrough. Or even Justin Bieber.

    For my part, I’m just a writer/researcher. We have our place! My guess is that this century will see more blueprints and manifestos and grandiose philosophical proposals together with concrete, incremental progress from real scientists. The genetic basis of suffering will eventually be eradicated across the tree of life, not in the name of anything “hedonistic” or gradients of intelligent bliss, and certainly not in the name of negative utilitarianism, but perhaps under the label of the World Health Organisation’s definition of health (cf. Constitution of WHO: principles). Taken literally, the constitution of the WHO enshrines the most daringly ambitious vision of the future of sentience ever conceived. Lifelong good health (“complete physical, mental and social well-being”) for all sentient beings is a noble aspiration.

    Regardless of race or species, all of us deserve good health as so defined. A biology of information-sensitive gradients of physical, mental and social well-being (HI) is more modest and workable thanks to biotech. Optimistically, life on Earth has only a few more centuries of misery and malaise to go.

  • How many universes are possible in the string theory landscape? You see not only 10500 bandied about, but also 105000. Which should we believe?
  • Perhaps c.10272000 (cf. “The F-theory geometry with most flux vacua”), but the size of reality is still an open question. Intuitively, reality is large, yet even a figure of 10272000 flux vacua (“universes”) is infinitesimally small compared to an infinite reality.

  • Physicists and mathematicians, which interpretation of quantum mechanics do you think is the most plausible? Why?
  • No plausible interpretation of quantum mechanics (QM) exists. However, one thing almost everyone agrees on as self-evident. Superpositions (“cat states”) are never experienced, only inferred. Even on modern interpretations of QM where the superposition principle never breaks down, i.e. Everett and the decoherence program, proponents don’t claim that superpositions are ever experienced. Rather, there are (effectively) decohered Everett branches where you see determinate live cats, and other Everett branches where you see determinate dead cats, all subsumed in one vast global superposition, the universal wavefunction.

    Yet if the superposition principle is truly universal, as unitary-only QM claims, why don’t biological minds experience a linear combination of eigenstates rather than definite classical outcomes? What makes biological consciousness so special?

    Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe a critical background assumption here is mistaken. Alternatively, only superpositions are ever experienced. Your subjective experience of classical-looking text on a classical-looking computer monitor is a neuronal superposition. Your subjective experience of detecting the discrete value of a “spin-up” electron in a Stern–Gerlach device is a neuronal superposition. Your experiences of live and dead cats (as distinct from live-and-dead cats) are neuronal superpositions. In other words, the superposition principle is universal. Biological minds are manifestations of the superposition principle, not its breakdown. Maybe the problem with most interpretations of QM, including most interpretations of Everett, is they are still partly in thrall to classical physics, classical perceptual direct realism, and a classical notion of definite outcomes. Whereas on this “no collapse” quantum mind conjecture, only the superposition principle sustains our experience of classicality. The phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects and subjectively determinate pointer-readings would be physically impossible without it.

    Yes, crazy stuff. You asked for plausibility. Why would anyone play around with an idea too implausible to deserve experimentally falsifying? We already know that the CNS is too hot. Phase coherence is scrambled too fast. We’re not quantum robins! Back-of-an-envelope calculations confirm what intuition suggests: the effective theoretical lifetime of individual coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS must be femtoseconds or less. Sub-femtosecond lifetimes are the wrong dynamical timescale for our minds by a dozen or so orders of magnitude (cf. Max Tegmark’s The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes). Consciousness must (somehow) be emergent and classical.

    Well, perhaps so.
    However, “dynamical timescale” considerations aren’t decisive against the intrinsic nature argument.
    The intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism has two versions. The first version, associated with Galen Strawson and latterly Phil Goff, treats our minds as effectively classical. The existence of decohered neurons is just assumed, rather than derived from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. In essence, you are what a pack of effectively decohered neurons feels like “from the inside”. Your mind and its phenomenal world-simulation disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical, the “fire” in the equations. Non-materialist physicalism is a bold conjecture aimed at dissolving the Hard Problem of consciousness. Unfortunately, the classical version of the intrinsic nature argument doesn’t work. Strawsonian physicalism can’t explain why you aren’t a micro-experiential zombie. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. The partial “structural mismatch” drives scientifically well-versed philosopher David Chalmers to dualism.

    However, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument isn’t vulnerable to the “structural mismatch” objection. On this conjecture, your mind discloses the intrinsic nature of quantum states. You are what individual coherent neuronal superpositions – preposterously short-lived by the standards of our everyday folk-chronology – feel like from the inside. Crudely, the “dynamical timescale” of our world-simulations is milliseconds – you perceptually simulate your local extra-cranial environment with a time-lag of scores of milliseconds – but the “frames” of the simulation are effectively sub-femtosecond. The subjective content of your subjective world-simulation is robustly classical, but the vehicle is inescapably quantum. Only quantum minds can instantiate subjectively classical worlds.

    Nonsense, one intuitively feels – or at least I do when not contemplating the dualist alternative. However, rather than expressions of powerfully-felt intuition, what’s needed is experiment, i.e. interferometry. If our minds and the subjectively quasi-classical world-simulations we run are quantum, i.e. if quantum mechanics is complete and wavefunction monism is true, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us. Or alternatively, experiment will lay quantum mind heresies to rest.

  • If every particle and atom in our bodies have no consciousness, how do we have consciousness?
  • “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
    (René Descartes)
    Let’s assume physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best mathematical description of the world, is true. The conjecture that the equations of quantum field theory describe a different kind of “stuff” inside and outside one’s mind is a metaphysical speculation. Unfortunately, the speculation doesn’t lead to any testable predictions. Uncharitably, it’s “not even wrong”. As it stands, the conjecture is philosophical rather than scientific.

    Naturally, as a scientific rationalist, one wants to say that consciousness emerges via an unknown mechanism from an insentient universe that exists independently of one’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs. Philosophers distinguish innocent “weak” emergence from spooky “strong” emergence. Strong emergence is more akin to magic than science. All kinds of natural phenomena that once seemed irreducibly strongly emergent, for example life (cf. Vitalism), have turned out to be only weakly emergent, i.e. reducible via molecular biology and quantum chemistry to fundamental physics. Most scientists believe that consciousness will go the same way. Admittedly, complications for classical reductionism arise from Nature’s ubiquitous, seemingly nonlocal EPR correlations. In most practical contexts, reductionism works fine – with one stark exception.

    My view? Consensus wisdom in the scientific community may well be right. Consciousness is weakly emergent. However, the explanatory gap is currently an unbridgeable chasm. No one has the slightest idea how to derive the first-person properties of subjective experience from quantum fields of insentience. Progress since Democritus in deriving sentience from insentience has been literally zero. Affirmations of faith are fine, but materialist metaphysics should not be confused with empirical science.

    Yet what if a derivation is impossible, i.e. what if consciousness is strongly emergent from fields of insentience? If so, then one option is dualism, presumably naturalistic rather than Cartesian. Dualism is hard to reconcile with the causal capacity of consciousness to discuss its own existence. Another option, non-materialist physicalism, drops the metaphysical assumption that spawns the mystery in the first place. For if the mathematical machinery of QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience, then the properties of our minds can be derived, in principle, from fundamental physics.

    Therefore, I explore non-materialist physicalism. Such a conjecture does extreme violence to one’s intuitions. I don’t like it. The idea of post-materialist science is seriously weird. I’ll just add, dogmatically, that any conjecture that doesn’t make precise, novel, empirically falsifiable predictions is probably wasting our time.

  • Does this material world exist independently of our consciousness?
  • “The more I see, the less I know for sure.”
    (John Lennon)
    What you call “this material world” is a conscious simulation run by your mind. It’s egocentric and autobiographical. Your world-simulation disintegrates when you fall asleep. You and your world-simulation respawn when your brain starts dreaming. When you wake up, your regenerated world-simulation loses much of its dreamworld autonomy because when you’re awake, inputs from peripheral nerves powerfully select the properties of your world-simulation, including the text you are now reading. Peripheral inputs don’t create your perceptual experience; they partly select it.

    A harder question to answer is the nature of the external world. Barring radical scepticism, you may infer the existence of an extra-cranial reality. On balance, too, you are probably not a Boltzmann brain. Formally, the properties and behaviour of the physical universe may be described by the equations of quantum field theory. Yet is the intrinsic nature of a quantum field experiential or non-experiential? Or do quantum fields have a hybrid quality, changing their essential nature inside and outside biological nervous systems? Alas, the equations of physics are silent: science doesn’t know.

  • Brian Tomasik suggests that plants and even bacteria could be sentient, should the Hedonistic Imperative apply to these beings too?
  • "Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace."
    (Albert Schweitzer)
    What should be the ultimate limits of our circle of compassion – or more realistically, our circle of moral systematisation?

    First, apologies to any exasperated reader who feels we’ve more morally urgent things to worry about than whether a bacterium can undergo a micro-pinprick of distress. In practical terms, let’s agree: we should prioritise shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses, and end all readily avoidable sources of suffering in human and nonhuman animals alike. The interests of even the humblest of sentient animals take precedence over bacteria and plants – if plants and bacteria have any non-metaphorical interests at all. Humans may sometimes anthropomorphise too much; more often, we anthropomorphise too little. Either way, getting our theory of consciousness right matters. False theories of mind can lead to ethical catastrophes. Brian Tomasik (cf. Essays on Reducing Suffering) does us a service by forcing us to spell out our justifications for what is “obvious”. Appeals to intuition and plausibility have no more place in a future science of mind than in physics.

    Yes, I think HI should be extended across the phylogenetic tree to all sentient beings, whether free-living, domesticated, incarcerated or “wild”. A technical revolution is transforming the moral landscape. For instance, CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives promise to invert our intuitive chronology of technical feasibility. So it’s not crazy, even now, to think about helping rabbits and rodents as well as humans and elephants. Slow-breeders like humans and elephants pose a bigger challenge for germline interventions than do our fast-reproducing cousins. Either way, ethics and decision-theoretic rationality converge. We should eradicate the molecular signature of experience below “hedonic zero” throughout the living world: it’s the root of all evil. Responsible moral agents should then ensure that suffering cannot recur within our forward light-cone.

    The precise margins of sentience are disputed; hence your question. Insects and worms (more strictly, the ganglia of insects and worms) are almost certainly sentient, as their behaviour, genetics, and opioid and dopamine systems attest. Less certainly, our peripheral nociceptors may literally feel pain; recall how your hand may recoil from a hot stove hundreds of milliseconds before your CNS feels a searing pain. Yet what about an amoeba? Speculations on the theoretical minimum “psychon” of experience stretch from the connectome of neural networks to the sentience of individual neurons all the way down to the quantum field-theoretic stuff of the world itself, i.e. panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism (cf. What is a good way to describe the Hard Problem of consciousness to someone with little background in philosophy and/or science?).

    Irrespective of the boundaries of sentience, the existence of consciousness does not, by itself, confer moral status. Let’s assume that information-processing systems without the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion do undergo rudimentary experience. There’s no a priori reason to believe that such rudimentary experience has hedonic tone, i.e. experience that is subjectively nice or nasty. In animals with central nervous systems, projections from the limbic system “paint on” hedonic tone to otherwise neutral experiences in the neocortex or its equivalent. In the absence of innervation for such hedonic painting, an emotionally neutral experience doesn’t matter. Or so I’d argue. Without the pleasure-pain axis, nothing matters at all, regardless of sentience or insentience.

    Despite such uncertainties, eradicating experience below hedonic zero should be technically straightforward – in one sense – in the post-CRISPR era (cf. What is the root cause of all suffering?). With the aid of neuroscanning and verbally competent human subjects, identify the core molecular signatures of unpleasant experience. Then prevent their genetic expression, using benign biological surrogates and/or AI prostheses to fulfil the functional role of the nasty experience if warranted. Compare the functionally vital role of, say, anxiety versus dispensable jealousy. Or compare how nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene completely knock out the capacity to feel physical pain (cf. Do you believe physical pain could be eliminated?). Today’s silicon robots don’t need the nasty “raw feels” of pain. Neither do tomorrow’s biological minds. Psychological pain is more complicated. The principle is the same.

    However, what distinguishes an ethically trivial from an ethically important experience isn’t just hedonic tone – nice, neutral, or nasty – but phenomenal binding. Other things being equal, macro-experiences matter more than micro-experiences. A pinprick is pure nastiness with no redeeming features; it’s still trivial. Compare how if, say, 1.3 billion skull-bound Chinese minds each undergo a pinprick, then the population of China doesn't thereby turn into a unified subject of experience with a mega-migraine – even if 1.3 billion Chinese minds reciprocally communicate via fast electromagnetic signalling that they are individually undergoing a trivial pain. Why are biological nervous systems so different? Let’s say that we identify the gene expression profile and molecular signature of unpleasant experience in an individual mammalian neuron. Neurons in neural networks communicate with each other across relatively slow chemical and electrical synapses. So when awake, why aren’t we just patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust” with no more moral significance than a Mexican wave? 1.3 billion trivialities don’t sum to something qualitatively important. By contrast, the suffering of biological nervous systems matters.

    Brian Tomasik and I differ on the phenomenal binding problem. The binding problem is especially ethically important if Brian is right and I’m wrong about digital sentience (cf. This guy thinks killing video game characters is immoral).

    In the context of biological organisms, I argue that if physicalism is true, then the structural cell wall encasing the cell membrane in plants and bacteria means that multicellular plants and bacterial colonies are not phenomenally-bound subjects of experience – any more than the skull-bound citizens of China can generate a unified subject of experience, regardless of how they functionally interconnect. I won’t recapitulate here my non-classical theory of phenomenal binding. It’s bizarre. It may be experimentally refuted by next-generation interferometry. I also think it’s the only way to save monistic physicalism from the spectre of dualism. All the options for solving the Hard Problem of consciousness are weird. All the options for solving the binding problem are weird. True or false, there are principled reasons for believing that plants and bacterial colonies are effectively just decohered cellular aggregates – functionally interconnected, yes, especially with multicellular plants, but with no interests above and beyond any individually negligible micro-experiences of their constituent cells. In other words, plants and micro-organism are ethically trivial – or at least, trivial within the nightmarish context of Darwinian life. Plants and unicellular organisms may be instrumentally (dis)valuable to sentient beings, but they aren’t intrinsically (dis)valuable. High-tech Jainism has practical limits. You should avoid treading on an ant. You don’t need to worry about inadvertently squashing a microbe, or taking a course of antibiotics.

    Let’s assume, then, the existence of no more than discrete micro-experiences for bacteria, archaea and plant cells. What should be the long-term future of plants and microorganisms? Their fate depends on our theory of value – and politics. Most people care, or pay lip service to caring, about species conservation and protecting the environment. The catastrophic Great Oxygenation Event poisoned the planet, killed off countless anaerobic bacteria, and led to misery-ridden aerobic life; but plant-based photosynthesis currently enjoys wide support. A broad popular consensus also favours conserving existing species of “charismatic mega-fauna”. Few people care about microorganisms – whose taxonomic status is in any case often murky in the extreme (cf. The Scientist Who Scrambled Darwin’s Tree of Life). I’m personally happy to defer to ecologists on the metaphorical health of ecosystems and species. The role of a future discipline of compassionate biology is to protect the interests of phenomenally-bound sentient beings, respecting their preferences where possible, and prioritising subjective well-being over taxonomic abstractions.

    What about the far future? For instance, should we terraform other worlds? Creating pain-ridden ecosystems of Darwinian life would be unethical. But what about bioprinting, say, exotic vegetation for Nature-lovers who want to live in basement reality rather than immersive VR? (cf. Evolutionary Aesthetics) Once again, I’m relaxed about anything that doesn’t involve suffering. Practical politics suggests a qualified conservativism. Perhaps we should aim for a small bubble of complex civilisation in our Galaxy based on gradients of intelligent bliss surrounded by a rapidly-expanding sphere of utilitronium that almost maximises the cosmic abundance of subjectively positive value in our Hubble volume. Classical utilitarianism offers the most plausible way to naturalise value; I speak as a negative utilitarian. Most non-utilitarians don’t care one way or the other whether a rock or a carrot – or a distant solar system – is converted into utilitronium, i.e. matter and energy optimised for pure bliss. By utilitarian criteria, plants and bacteria are not optimal arrangements of matter and energy. I’m not convinced that plants and bacteria have a long-term future. But then, the same could be said of all Darwinian life-forms, not least Homo sapiens. Unlike animals, however, plants and bacteria have no subjective wishes to be taken into account. For once, I think common sense is right.

  • What are the downsides of transhumanism?
  • “The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there's any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.”
    (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
    At the risk of sounding naïve, it’s hard to think of any downside to a “Triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. The pitfalls of transhumanism derive not from the destination, but from how we get there. Bootstrapping our way out of the Darwinian abyss will be messy.

    By “pitfalls”, I’m not alluding to the risk of an Intelligence Explosion that misfires and turns us into paperclips, nor worries about the loss of procreative freedom that a post-aging world entails on pain of Malthusian catastrophe. Rather, becoming transhuman and ultimately posthuman entails editing our source code. This genetic rewrite of human nature won’t unfold under the tarnished label of eugenics, nor the untested banners of transhumanism and paradise engineering. Instead, as the reproductive revolution gathers pace, prospective parents will seek to create the happiest, healthiest, smartest, “best” babies – as they do today without the assistance of medical genetics. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling (PGS) will presumably precede the new era of germline editing. Yet even liberal eugenics is a continuum. China, for example, may favour genetic dirigisme over unrestricted parental freedom. Will the world’s first genetic superpower be Chinese or Israeli? Or will genetic uplift be truly global?

    My own focus is the biological-genetic basis of mood, hedonic range and pain-sensitivity. Superhappiness is technically the easiest of the three transhumanist “supers” to engineer – although initially, simply loading the genetic dice via PGS is more likely. In outline, we can already specify genetically how to program life based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. You ask about the downside. At worst, genetic mood-enrichment carries the same risks as long-acting euphoriant drugs. At best, genetic mood-enrichment can make life innately sublime. Coding for superlongevity and, especially, superintelligence will be much more technically challenging than superhappiness, and no less of a socio-political minefield. Let’s here assume a future of merely partial cyborgisation rather than a mind uploading or full-blown AI replacement scenario. Unfortunately, any enhancement of biointelligence is challenging because – unlike mood and longevity – “intelligence” is a contested concept, neither well-defined nor well-understood. For instance, ratcheting up average global IQ – our primitive measure of “autistic” intelligence – to the level of today’s smartest Ashkenazi Jews and beyond would probably ratchet up AQ scores too, i.e. amplify a particular kind of cognitive style. Crudely, what is the optimal AQ for future civilisation: 4 or 40, a world of brilliant tender-minded hyper-empaths or brilliant Aspergerian hyper-systematisers? What kinds of neurodiversity – or a selective absence of neurodiversity – are socially and personally optimal, regardless of a civilisation’s hedonic range? Posthuman superintelligence may effortlessly switch cognitive styles as appropriate. In humans, gains in “autistic” problem-solving ability frequently come at the expense of social cognition on account of poorly understood neurological tradeoffs. Moreover, other dimensions of cognitive style should be considered too, not just AQ/IQ.

    I mentioned “cyborgisation”. Genetic-biological enhancement is only one part of the transhumanist vision. Some degree of cyborgisation of both human and nonhuman animals is inevitable, albeit under a prettier label. Implanted “narrow” superintelligence-on-neurochip will make us super-geniuses by dim contemporary lights of intellectual prowess. However, our legacy wetware can’t just be replaced in its entirety by smart digital prostheses without turning us into zombies. Whether universal zombification would be an upside or a downside depends on your ethical convictions. Mine are dark. For better or worse, such a zombie scenario is science-fiction. A zombie apocalypse isn’t going to happen, though I’d happily eat my words. Full-spectrum superintelligence will be supersentient. True, some futurists envisage digital immortality via“mind uploading” – and not for the purposes of curing consciousness. Universal destructive uploading would be a panacea. Yet no one knows how classical computers can solve the binding problem. In my view, sociologically and technically, digital sentience is a pipedream. Superintelligence will be our AI-augmented descendants.

    Another downside to transhumanism is thornier to discuss: transhumanists. We are as human as everyone else. To understand the transhumanist vision, it’s fun to imagine a glorious Triple S future, or perhaps glimpse post-Darwinian relationships in communing loved-up ravers in an MDMA-induced “cuddle puddle”. Post-Darwinian social life will be civilised, unlike the zero-sum status-games and dysfunctional pair-bonding of human primates. But arguably, just as relevant to understanding transhumanist politics is Franz de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes and even Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. Moreover, it’s not clear whether transhumanists should aspire to be smart angels. Saintly intelligence is premature. For only exceedingly cunning, resourceful, Machiavellian intelligence can win the battle for hearts and minds, seduce the rich and powerful, and lay the political foundations of a world where Machiavellianism is redundant. Alas, I’ve no detailed political roadmap how to reach transhuman civilisation – just a mix of pious sentiments and superficial generalities.

    If becoming transhuman and then posthuman is so fraught with risks, why do it?
    Transhumanists don’t speak with one voice here. For my part, I’m a transhumanist because rewriting our DNA is the only non-apocalyptic way to abolish suffering in all sentient beings. Darwinian life on Earth is genetically predisposed to suffer. The hedonic treadmill enslaves and diminishes us. Suffering is pointless and vile beyond description. In my view, all the cool stuff in post-Darwinian life will be icing on the cake – awesome, sexy, spectacular icing, no doubt, but a moral luxury.

  • What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness? Why would modeling neurons in a classical computer not yield consciousness?
  • “I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.”
    (Claude Shannon)
    Many people believe that classical digital computers will one day “wake up”. There are strong functionalist grounds for scepticism. In my view, classical digital computers will remain zombies.

    First, some background assumptions need unpacking. What are brains “for”? Perhaps the greatest computational achievement of animal nervous systems since the late preCambrian has been to run dynamical simulations of the external world (“perception”). When we’re awake, our world-simulations causally covary with fitness-relevant features of the local environment. Contrast the naïve realist idea that we are directly aware of our surroundings – a marvellously adaptive feat, for sure, but the same could be said of telepathy or precognition. Macroscopic world-making is massively adaptive; perceptual experience allows organisms with the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion to act intelligently in almost real time. Naturally, even inferential realists don’t go around talking about “my phenomenal world-simulation” – normally, at any rate (see e.g. The World In Your Head by Steve Lehar or Inner Presence by Antti Revonsuo). We typically think and act as though direct realism were true. Belief in perceptual direct realism is more-or-less hardwired, fitness-enhancing and delusional.

    So a question arises. How is this adaptive delusion physically possible? How do decohered, membrane-bound nerve cells, communicating across electrochemical synapses, generate the virtual macroscopic world you are now experiencing? Dreaming or awake, when you experience, e.g. a phenomenal cat in front of your phenomenal body-image, routine neuroscanning can pick out feature-processors in your CNS synchronously firing (edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons, and so forth). We can imagine replacing these distributed feature-mediating neurons and their connectome with functional surrogates made of silicon or gallium arsenide. As framed, the mystery doesn’t depend on substrate. Nor is the mystery solved simply by assuming panpsychism. Feel free to replace the 1s and 0s of a program run on a classical digital computer with discrete micro-pixels of experience; the binding problem still stands. Neuroscience reveals hints of a structural match between the CNS and the cat you experience. But no cat. So where in the physical universe is your phenomenal cat?

    One possible response to the seeming structural mismatch is to embrace “strong” emergence or dualism. If phenomenal binding is classically impossible, then unified cats just emerge when synchronous neuronal feature-detectors fire. Emergence is a brute fact about reality, not explicable in terms of anything more physically primitive. Likewise, if we model the synchronous firing of neurons in a classical digital computer or classically parallel connectionist system, then phenomenal cats will emerge too. And why not?! We can’t rule it out. Why shouldn’t phenomenally-bound perceptual objects and unified subjects of experience just “pop out” at different levels of computational abstraction in a digital computer, just as they pop out, apparently, from a pack of classical neurons firing? But that’s the point about strong emergence – if we believe it’s real, it’s a Pandora’s box. We can’t rule anything out if we live in a world where the high-level properties of information processing systems don’t supervene on the underlying physics. Irreducible strong emergence spells the end of physicalism and the unity of science.

    So where next? Opinions differ! I’m (cautiously) interested in a physicalist and functionalist alternative to dualism and strong emergence. Classical neurons in the awake/dreaming brain are an artifact of our clumsy, temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. The quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument doesn’t involve any new principle of physics, e.g. a violation of unitarity like Orch-OR; and it isn't vulnerable to the decoherence timescales objection. I don’t know if the conjecture is true; but I’ve a fairly good idea of how next-generation interferometry can demonstrate it’s false.

    Yet what if it is false, i.e. what if phenomenal binding is neither quantum-theoretic nor classical? What if David Chalmers is right? Well, with difficulty, I can imagine post-materialist science, but not post-physicalist science. I don’t know whether this expresses a truth about reality or reflects my stunted human imagination.

  • To what degree do you consider theoretical physics a form of philosophy?
  • “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher."
    (Pascal)
    Theoretical physics, at its core, is a form of philosophy. The discipline is steeped in metaphysical assumptions. Alas, this claim must be distinguished from the question of whether theoretical physicists could benefit from the insights of academic philosophers. Honourable exceptions aside, the answer is probably “no”. Few philosophers have the technical competence in mathematical physics usefully to contribute to the debates between theorists on everything from Bell’s inequality to the foundations of quantum mechanics to the multiverse(s) to M-theory. This doesn’t mean that the philosophical assumptions made by physicists are any less treacherous. See for example Adam Becker’s non-technical account of the debate between Copenhagenists, Bohmians and Everettians: What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics.

    One of the most valuable intellectual skills one can acquire is working out who the real experts are in a field outside one’s own and then – provisionally – deferring to their expertise. Titles, academic prestige, citations, peer-reviewed publication record (etc) are initial clues. But sometimes, the easy clues mislead; compare the sad story of psychiatric medicine. Nonetheless, in chemistry or the biosciences or experimental physics, the answer is usually soon obvious, although even here, the history of what smart humans find obvious ought to be sobering. What’s frustrating for the non-specialist about the last thirty years of post-empirical physics (cf. String Theory and the Scientific Method) is that it’s unclear to whose expertise one should defer. It’s not “obvious”.

  • Can a thought think of itself?
  • Yes, indexical thoughts like this particular thought are self-referential. But even prelinguistic and evolutionarily ancient experience such as phenomenal pain is self-referential, in a sense at least. Pain and pleasure are self-intimating. Philosophers like Frege used to decry the idea of “ownerless pains”. Yet in my view, a pain or a thought-episode needn’t be “owned” by anything but itself. Thus we could create experience in a test-tube, so to speak – blissful experience, I trust.

    Self-referential thought is one example of a feat beyond a classical digital computer or a classically parallel connectionist system. As with digitally impossible phenomenal binding, workarounds exist. Fake functional analogues of self-reference are programmable. Yet digital zombies can’t think about sentience, or contemplate their ignorance (cf. What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness? Why would modeling neurons in a classical computer not yield consciousness?).

    How do biological thoughts think about themselves?
    Alas, science doesn’t know.

  • Do you think artificial intelligence will ever be conscious?
  • Boring disclaimer: no one knows.
    However, in my (very) tentative view…
    Classical digital computers and classically parallel connectionist systems will never be non-trivially conscious because they are incapable of phenomenal binding. They are effectively zombies (cf. What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness? Why would modeling neurons in a classical computer not yield consciousness?).

    Centuries from now, artificially intelligent nonbiological quantum computers will be phenomenally-bound subjects of experience: minds. However, artificial quantum computers could occupy state-spaces of consciousness radically different from that of biological nervous systems. Their cognitive phenomenology may be unimaginably alien to Homo sapiens – far weirder than even the most exotic psychedelic drug trip today (cf. Could quantum computing cause sentience in AI?).

    Later this century and beyond, superhuman “cyborgs”, i.e. enhanced humans and transhumans with smart nonbiological neuroprostheses, will be conscious and perhaps supersentient. Our recursively self-improving descendants may boostrap their way to full-spectrum superintelligence. Yet insofar as their non-biological augmentation has a classical architecture, it will be phenomenally unbound, as now.

    Apologies for these cryptic remarks. True or false, they are amplified in the links. Casual readers should be alerted that my ideas on the quantum supremacy of biological minds are not mainstream in either neuroscience or AI.

  • Does consciousness exist or have our brains tricked us?
  • Rephrased, do brains exist or has our consciousness tricked us?
    Brains, as normally understood, are a perceptual artifact of biological minds. Our world-simulations deceive us. Naïve realism about perception induces a belief in wet lumps of neural porridge that secrete first-person experience and spawn the Hard Problem of consciousness. Naïve realism about perceptual consciousness induces belief in awake nervous systems made up of decohered classical neurons; hence the Binding Problem. Naïve realism about perceptual consciousness gives rise to the Measurement Problem in quantum mechanics, i.e. the supposedly non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement to yield definite classical outcomes.

    So is reality an illusion?
    Oh how I wish. The size of reality beggars the imagination. But egocentric world-simulations are mind-dependent, and don’t outlive their hosts.

  • What would Satan think of Transhumanism?
  • If the Bible’s portrayal of Satan is fair and accurate, then a commitment to the well-being of all sentience as set out in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) is inconsistent with Satan’s core principles. Scope for compromise would seem limited. However, most transhumanists are secular rationalists, which might be more to Satan’s taste. As disbelievers in God, we risk an eternity of torment as his guests in Hell. In addition, the horrors of human history to date suggest that Satan would welcome the prospect of running “ancestor simulations”, a satanic idea best forgotten.

    Tellingly, however, there are some Christian transhumanists, but no Satanist transhumanists. Literally or figuratively, the kingdom of pain and suffering is Satan’s realm. Transhumanists believe in a peaceful superhappiness revolution. Paradise engineering via biotechnology can subvert the infernal regime of Darwinian life. Suffering can be abolished. Sinful and depraved human nature can be genetically cured. Creating Heaven-on-Earth poses a serious programming challenge. But satanic code can be purged from the biosphere.

    Sadly, Satan has a secret weapon, quantum mechanics. Not even God-like superintelligence can overthrow the universal Schrödinger equation and the evil it encodes.
    I hope I’m wrong, but fear Satan’s kingdom is secure.

  • Does particle physics rule out that photons are conscious as claimed by strong panpsychism?
  • “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
    (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
    No. However, like most rationalists, I find it intuitively self-evident that the mathematical machinery of QFT describes fields of insentience. The intrinsic nature of a quantum field is non-experiential. Intuitively, the unknown “psychon” of consciousness, i.e. the smallest physically possible unit of sentience, must be orders of magnitude larger than excitations of the world’s fundamental fields. Intuitively, too, the psychon must likewise be many orders of magnitude longer-lived and shorter-lived respectively than the shortest-lived and longest-lived particle excitations.

    So why do critics of materialism cast doubt on what is psychologically obvious if not scientifically proven? See, for example, “The Case For Panpsychism” by Phil Goff, or “Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?” by Galen Strawson.

    Alas, what materialists call, euphemistically, the Hard Problem of consciousness has no credible solution. All that a rationalist can do is explore testable conjectures that aren’t demonstrably false – as distinct from pre-reflectively crazy. Materialism fails the test of empirical adequacy. Science that isn’t empirically adequate isn’t really science: it’s metaphysics. Worse, it’s not even self-consistent metaphysics. By clinging to an ontology that is inconsistent with the empirical evidence, namely one’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs, materialist metaphysicians face the risk of becoming dogmatic and irrational, and at worst even cultish. Humans are not p-zombies. Or rather, first-person experience discloses that I am not a p-zombie and – more tentatively – the principle of mediocrity together with the uniformity of Nature suggests that sentience in biological robots is most likely the norm.

    So what about empirically adequate alternatives? Can we aspire to a theory of consciousness that is formally consistent with the crowning achievement of twentieth-century physics, the Standard Model: a theory of consciousness that is both realist and physicalist, but not materialist? Post-materialist science must also explain the causal efficacy of consciousness without violating physicalism, i.e. no irreducible “strong” emergence in Nature. Your question asks if photons are conscious. Panpsychism in the loose sense is worth distinguishing from non-materialist physicalism. According to panpsychism, consciousness is, somehow, inseparably attached to all the world’s fundamental physical fields. By contrast, according to non-materialist physicalism, there is no “attachment”: instead, the world’s fundamental fields are fields of subjective experience: it’s the essence of the physical. All and only the physical has causal efficacy. The diverse solutions to the equations of QFT encode the diverse values of subjective experience.

    Yes, it’s a desperately bizarre conjecture, at once realist, physicalist and idealist. What else motivates non-materialist physicalism, beyond our scientific ignorance of the mysterious “fire” in the equations? And is it testable?

    The intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism has two versions, one classical, the other quantum. Both versions of the argument propose that our minds reveal the intrinsic nature of the physical. Non-materialist physicalism turns Kant on his head, so to speak. Your phenomenal mind discloses one small part of the noumenal essence of the world. However, the classical version of the intrinsic nature argument trips and – as far as I can tell – founders on the phenomenal binding problem. I don’t see how the classical version can be rescued. For if physicalism is true, then it’s not subjectively like anything, collectively, to be a micro-experiential zombie of membrane-bound nerve cells, any more than it’s subjectively like anything to be an aggregate of 86 billion decohered neurons dreamlessly asleep nor – contra Eric Schwitzgebel (“If Materialism is true, the United States is Probably Conscious”), the population of the USA. By contrast, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument is empirically adequate, as distinct from plausible.

    Historically, incredulity at the intrinsic nature argument has focused, overwhelmingly, on how any such conjecture makes the psychon absurdly small and simple – whether bosons or fermions, photons or electrons, makes no difference (cf. Electromagnetic theories of consciousness). It’s the reason most scientists still dismiss the conjecture out of hand. The quantum version of the intrinsic nature argument focuses on a no less preposterous implication. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, as proposed, then the psychon must be absurdly short-lived.

    This absurdity is a disguised blessing. For sub-femtosecond quantum holism not only promises to dissolve the classically impossible binding problem, but also offers the missing ingredient that most pre-scientific theories of consciousness lack: experimental falsifiability. If quantum mechanics is complete, then at sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, the CNS can’t be understood as a pack of decohered and discrete classical neurons, but rather as individual neuronal superpositions, sculpted by selection pressure of a ferocious intensity that defies the imagination. See e.g. John Campbell (“Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian Process”) on why Wojciech Zurek’s “Quantum Darwinism” isn’t some tricksy New Age metaphor to warm the heart of Deepak Chopra, but an apt description of what the decoherence program in unitary-only quantum physics entails.

    Has natural selection, in Darwin’s sense, been able to harness unrelenting selection pressure in Zurek’s? Can environmentally-induced decoherence be tamed? Molecular matter-wave interferometry should tell us. According to this conjecture, selection pressure more intense than three billion years of natural selection as conceived by Darwin plays out inside our skulls every second of our lives, creating the dynamically stable world-simulations that our skull-bound minds conceive as the external world (“perception”).

    Yet aren’t coherent neuronal superpositions just too short-lived to be fit for purpose?

    Intuitively again, yes. And maybe intuition is correct. But folk chronology is anthropocentric. Femtoseconds and attoseconds are unimaginably protracted timescales compared to the regime of Planck scale physics where the real drama of our lives unfolds. For sure, powerful intuition still says that the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions means that they can’t be the vehicle to underpin the subjectively quasi-classical world-simulations run by our minds. Intuition hasn’t got us far on the Hard Problem to date.

    Is the intrinsic nature argument true?
    I don’t know. The same principle of mediocrity that suggests one is not the world’s only sentient being is a useful reminder that I most probably write as much educated nonsense on consciousness as everyone else. Therefore, I won’t start to believe – as distinct from entertain – non-materialist physicalism unless interferometry yields a truly novel confirmed prediction, i.e. what primitive neuroscanning calls feature-binding by synchrony is really neuronal superposition.

    Alternatives? What if interferometry doesn’t disclose a perfect structural match between our minds and the formalism of QFT, yielding instead just “noise”? What if phenomenal binding is indeed classically impossible too?
    Well, if so, then not just materialism but physicalism is false. Dualism is true.
    It’s an ugly dilemma.
    Of course, there are folks who say it’s a false dilemma: eliminativists. Anti-realists do at least grasp the seriousness of the problem posed by consciousness for materialism. But to quote Galen Strawson on first-person experience: The having is the knowing.
    If only the rest of scientific knowledge were so easy.

  • Do you think that Roger Penrose's Quantum Consciousness theory is correct?
  • “The brain is just a computer made of meat.”
    (Marvin Minsky)
    Any scientifically adequate theory of consciousness should offer novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics alike can agree favour the conjecture over alternatives. The Penrose-Hameroff Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) conjecture is one of the exceptionally few theories of consciousness that satisfies this methodological criterion of good science. The “one graviton” level interferometry experiment that Roger Penrose proposes to (dis)confirm objective collapse is horrendously difficult, but it ought to be feasible this century. I’ve nothing useful to add here beyond “philosophical” scepticism that the superposition principle of QM ever breaks down. By contrast, Penrose believes that quantum mechanics must be modified because a realistic interpretation of the formalism entails Everett. Alas so.

    Aside from basic methodological adequacy, any scientifically satisfactory theory of consciousness should explain (1) the existence (2) phenomenal binding (3) causal efficacy (4) diverse palette of subjective experience. Penrose focuses on a more problematic requirement. A scientific theory of consciousness should explain (5) the allegedly non-computable ability of human mathematical minds to divine the truth of Gödel sentences (cf. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems). It’s not clear that the output of even a mathematical super-mind like Penrose couldn’t simply be modelled via a gigantic lookup table. If the world’s fundamental fields are non-experiential, i.e. if non-materialist physicalism is false, then we are no nearer to answering questions (1) to (4). As far as I can tell, Orch-OR doesn’t really explain why we aren’t p-zombies – even if a “dynamical collapse” conjecture is experimentally vindicated, leaving theoretical physicists in shock.

    Regardless of whether the human mind is algorithmically computable, I think it’s worth making a general point. Consciousness is very ancient. Pain, pleasure, emotion and perceptual experience date back at least to the late pre-Cambrian. Selection pressure in favour of mathematical prowess has been weak. Maybe if you are a perceptual direct realist and/or a world-class maths genius like Roger Penrose, then the key to the mysteries of consciousness will seem a late evolutionary innovation: mathematicians! In my view, a better candidate may turn out to be how natural selection solved the binding problem in the evolutionary environment of adaptedness (EEA).
    More crudely, what is consciousness “for”?

    Sorry for skating over the issues. I say a bit more in answer to: What do quantum physicists say about the microtubules quantum mind theories? As you’ve probably gathered, I’m sympathetic in principle to Orch-OR. Unitary-only quantum mechanics (“many worlds”) is terrifying. I just don’t see how dynamical collapse theories can be made to work.

  • Is there any scientific evidence for the existence of group consciousness?
  • Why do casinos fear card-counters and welcome psychics who read the Daily Mail? (cf. “Scientists claim humans have collective consciousness”) Various explanations spring to mind, but none involve a Borg-like transcendence of the skull. Perhaps collective consciousness may one day be technically feasible. Today, our minds are lonely island-universes.

    However, there’s a complication. If orthodox neuroscience is correct, then at least one kind of group consciousness is real. You aren’t just an aggregate of cellular mind-dust. Collective consciousness makes some groups fabulously successful, though still sometimes lonely.

    The same story is repeated in a thousand textbooks. Neuroscience tells us that individual neurons assemble into tightly-knit communities that communicate across chemical and electrical synapses. Many networks of neurons never exhibit group consciousness, for example the enteric nervous system (the “brain-in-the-gut”). No surprises there. However, central nervous systems and the cephalic ganglia of invertebrates are weirdly different. When an organism is dreamlessly asleep, the individual identity of membrane-bound neurons is conserved. No surprises there either. Yet each morning something unexplained happens. We “wake up”. Billions of neurons partially surrender their integrity and participate in a hive mind – for example, you as the unified subject of experience reading this sentence (cf. The Unity of Consciousness).

    How is such neuronal group consciousness feasible? Whatever happened to reductionism? If hive minds can irreducibly “emerge” inside skulls, then why can’t hive minds emerge elsewhere (“If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”)?

    My view?
    A blend of orthodox physicalism and quantum woo(?), though with a greater debt to Hugh Everett than Deepak Chopra.

  • Can Quantum Mechanics explain how everything came to be?
  • Is reality explained by an unknown theory from which quantum mechanics can be derived? Or does the formalism of unitary-only quantum mechanics, if an oracle told us how to interpret it correctly, encode the explanation of absolutely everything – including why anything exists, biological life, consciousness, tripping on LSD, the taste of chocolate, the whole shebang?

    If I had to guess, then I’d answer the latter. Quantum mechanics without the ad hoc collapse postulate and subsuming gravity is formally complete. This response might seem to make physics sound more like Biblical exegesis than the hard-won triumph of the experimental method. Maybe so. Heaven knows. Sadly, I don't know any oracles.

  • Do physicists address the role of consciousness in quantum theory?
  • Before you first learned about Posner molecules (cf. A New Spin on the Quantum Brain), would you have considered the proposal that quantum coherence could persist in a warm environment like the brain for hours even worth testing? Before you read the Oxford study (cf. Migration via quantum mechanics), what credence would you have assigned the idea that robins use quantum entanglement to navigate? When psychologist Daniel Kahneman was asked what single cognitive bias he would eliminate if he had a magic wand, he replied: “Overconfidence”. Given the profound disagreements between theorists over the foundations of quantum mechanics, our mystification by the existence of subjective experience, and the classical impossibility of phenomenal binding, one might imagine humility would be the order of the day. As they say, hope springs eternal.

    Cognitive biases aside, the majority of physicists are dismissive of a crucial role for consciousness in QM because the successes of the decoherence program promise to sweep the measurement problem under the rug. Most quantum mind theories (e.g. Orch-OR) invoke consciousness in the alleged collapse of the wavefunction. If wavefunctions never really collapse, then most quantum mind theories can be thrown out of the window. Physicists are increasingly sceptical that experiment will ever detect a collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, although they are more comfortable talking about unitarity than Everett.

    My view? Bewilderment, at least for the most part. You’ll find my ideas on “Schrödinger's neurons” of interest only if you believe that phenomenal binding is classically impossible, leaving us with a stark choice between quantum-theoretic explanations of consciousness and dualism. I don't believe with any confidence that a “no collapse” quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument is true; I do think it’s worth falsifying.

  • Would you retain a degree of consciousness with both hemispheres removed?
  • Yes. Compare people born without cerebral hemispheres. Many children with hydranencephaly have a functioning cerebellum as well as a brainstem. The cerebellum has more nerve cells, over 60 billion, than both cerebral hemispheres combined. The cerebellum is traditionally associated with motor control. Yet this neglected brain structure also plays a role in episodic memory, language, fear and pleasure (cf. Neuroscientists Accidentally Discovered a Whole New Role For The Cerebellum).

    What if the cerebellum were surgically removed too? Again, perhaps compare severe hydranencephalics born with only a brainstem. Unsophisticated consciousness is present, and possibly more complex experience too (cf. Giant neurons in the brain may play similarly giant role in awareness and cognition). On the other hand, damage to one part of the pons, the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, is associated with coma (cf. Harvard Scientists Think They've Pinpointed The Physical Source of Consciousness). Even here, caution is still needed before assuming insentience. People medically diagnosed as comatose may turn out to be conscious and, in rare cases, acutely self-conscious (cf. “Being in a Coma is Like One Long Lucid Dream”). By contrast, other coma patients are really are phenomenally unbound micro-experiential zombies, i.e. effectively non-conscious and unable to suffer. Hence the controlled and reversible coma we call general anaesthesia.

    One common source of confusion is the restrictive use of the term “conscious” to mean self-conscious, just as “sentient” is often misused to mean sapient. Absence or surgical removal of both cerebral hemispheres is not consistent with reflective self-awareness. Hydranencephalics aren’t sapient, but nor are they zombies or micro-experiential zombies. Just as humans are prone to underestimate the sentience and sapience of members of other races and species (cf. A Tiny Fish Just Passed a Classic Self-Awareness Test With a Mirror), likewise humans tend to underestimate the consciousness of sentient beings who are unable verbally to communicate. This failure can be ethically catastrophic in human and nonhuman animals alike.

    So to answer your question, if I lost both my hemispheres, then yes, I’d still be conscious, but I probably wouldn’t be able to write answers on Quora.
    One hemisphere?
    Perhaps.

  • What is a comprehensive list of ways in which reality may be distorted by perception?
  • “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”
    (William Blake)

    1. You don’t perceive the environment. There is no public world. Instead, your local environment partially selects your brain states, some of which are experienced as your external surroundings. Mind-independent reality is a speculative metaphysical inference, sadly a strong one, IMO. Contra William Blake (and Aldous Huxley), there are no see-though doors of perception in need of a good wash, just cranial prisons.

    2. Whether you are awake or dreaming, your world-simulation is populated by zombies. When you are awake, these zombies are the avatars of sentient beings, but the imposters loom larger than their hypothetical real-world counterparts.

    3. Your egocentric world-simulation resembles a grotesque cartoon. Within the cartoon, you are the hub of reality, the most important being in the universe, followed by your close genetic relatives, lovers, friends and allies. On theoretical grounds, you may wonder if this fitness-enhancing hallucination can be trusted. After all, trillions of other sentient beings apparently share an analogous illusion. In practice, the idea of your playing a humble role in the great scheme of things can be hard to take seriously, unless the hub of the universe is psychologically depressed. Wikipedia’s List of Messiah Claimants could be enlarged.

    4. Perceptual direct realism spawns a “magical” theory of reference. If direct realism is delusional, then what is the mysterious relationship between thought-episodes internal to your world-simulation and the external world? (cf. What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem?)

    5. A realistic interpretation of the formalism of quantum physics confirms that not just the Lockean “secondary” properties of material objects are mind-dependent, but also their “primary” properties. Shades of Bishop Berkeley? ("Esse est percipi" – "to be is to be perceived") Kant? Not exactly, but classical physics and Copenhagen-style positivism alike are a false theory of reality.

    6. According to “no-collapse” quantum mechanics (Everett), you have no unique future, and no unique past. You are not the same person as your countless ancestral namesakes nor the countless folk who wake up tomorrow with an approximation of your memories (cf. Was Parfit correct about consciousness and how we're not the same person that we were when we were born?).

    7. You experience the illusion of embodiment. “In-the-body” hallucinations in biological minds pervade the animal kingdom. As out-of-body experiences on dissociative anaesthetics like ketamine reveal, physical bodies as normally conceived are cross-modally-matched illusions generated by the CNS. Or alternatively, dualism is true. Actually, not everyone has the chronic illusion of embodiment. People with negative autoscopy can stare into a virtual mirror in their phenomenal world-simulation and not see themselves. For evolutionary reasons, negative autoscopy is rare.

    8. You experience the illusion of four-dimensional space-time, not high-dimensional Hilbert space. This idea is more controversial. Hilbert space is a generalisation of ordinary Euclidian space to an intuitively huge number of dimensions – conventionally infinite, though the holographic entropy bound suggests the dimensionality of what naïve realists call the observable universe is finite. Quantum mechanics may be understood via the mathematical structure of Hilbert space. Typically, Hilbert space is treated instrumentally as a mere mathematical abstraction, even by Everettians. As David Wallace, a critic, puts it: “Very few people are willing to defend Hilbert-space realism in print.” In the interests of mental health, such self-censorship may be wise.

    9. Experienced psychonauts would echo William James, “…our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” Quite so. Our posthuman successors may regard everyday Darwinian consciousness as delusive in ways that transcend the expressive power of a human conceptual scheme.

    10. We do not understand reality. Any account of our misperceptions must pass over the unknown unknowns. I fear we’re missing not only details, but the key to the plot.

  • Do you accept that colors do not exist in the Universe (It is a creation of our mind's imaginations used to better perceive our surroundings)?
  • Phenomenal colours are physical, spatio-temporally located properties of the universe. Phenomenal colours are also mind-dependent. A tension between these two claims exists only if our minds are not physical, spatio-temporally located properties of the universe, i.e. if dualism is true.

    Let’s here assume dualism is false. Monistic physicalism is true. So why do some scientists and philosophers say that colours are unreal, or imply that colours have second-rate ontological status? (cf. Color (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) One paradoxical reason is the popularity of perceptual realism. Perceptual realists believe that our waking minds are directly acquainted with a classical macroscopic world of chairs, tables and laboratory equipment, etc. Physics and chemistry tell us that atoms and molecules aren’t coloured. So colour-fictionalists say that our minds must, by mechanisms unknown to science, project or “paint on” colours to material objects so that the world looks inherently colorful. On this story, we see the material world, not through a glass darkly, but falsely colorised. Fake colorization has been genetically adaptive. In the ancestral environment, the inability to colorize, achromatopsia, could be lethal.

    However, perceptual direct realism is not a viable theory of our relationship with the external world. Neither, more generally, is the conceptual framework of what we may call perceptualism. Perceptualism is the background assumption that awake biological minds directly or indirectly perceive gross patterns in their local environment. By contrast, according to the world-simulation model, our brains simulate fitness-relevant features of our surroundings, shaped in part by peripheral inputs. Peripheral nervous inputs partly select, but don’t create, the contents of our waking minds and the nearly real-time world-simulations we run. The existence of external reality is a theoretical inference to the best explanation. Our naïve perceptualism is a highly adaptive delusion: it’s more-or-less hardwired, linguistically universal and evolutionarily ancient. Unlike the world-simulationist paradigm, perceptualism leads to all kinds of scientific craziness – more seriously delusive than trippy colorization. For example, according to physicist perceptualists, human observers somehow “collapse the wavefunction”, i.e. the allegedly discontinuous, non-linear, non-unitary, non-local, indeterministic transformation of a state vector on measurement to yield a definite classical outcome. Behold, an animated cat! (cf. Schrödinger's cat - Wikipedia) In fairness, not all physicists buy into the magic of Copenhagen. Thus Everettians don’t believe that wavefunction collapse is real. Instead, decohered (“split”) quasi-classical branches proliferate like mad. Some of your namesakes perceive live cats, and others perceive dead cats, with a frequency or measure determined by the Born rule, which Everettians attempt to derive from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. However, Copenhagenists, Bohmians and Everettians alike tend to talk as though perceptual realism were true. Everettians differ in claiming that we perceive definite outcomes that aren’t unique.

    Yet how do our brains generate colour – and not just splodges of colour, but coloured objects within colourful world-simulations whose behaviour (when we aren’t dreaming) can be crudely described by a combination of folk psychology and classical physics? Note that the claim that our world-simulations seem classical is distinct from the claim that the vehicle of simulation is classical, i.e. our minds are mediated by a pack of decohered neurons.

    Alas, an explanation is elusive. Colour is often discussed in the context of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, the surface reflectance properties of physical objects, and so forth. Colourful experience has indeed been recruited by natural selection to play this “teleofunctional” role, enhancing our capacity to find food, choose mates and avoid being eaten. Or sometimes (rarely) to be eaten (cf. Leucochloridium paradoxum). However, as our colourful dreams attest (cf. Black and white TV generation have monochrome dreams), the existence of external objects, incident light on the retina, and inputs from the optic nerve (etc) is neither necessary nor sufficient for our neocortical experience of coloured objects. So the daytime functional role of phenomenal colour is a red herring in the hunt for its neurological basis. Neuroscanning and microelectrode studies reveal that specialised neurons in the ventral occipital lobe mediate colour experience. Dreaming or awake, when you see, say, a marmalade cat strolling in front of your body-image, neuroscanning can pick out colour-mediating neurons synchronously activated with neuronal motion-detectors, edge-detectors and so forth. But no cat. So what explains the partial structural mismatch? Here we have the phenomenal binding problem.

    The binding problem is intimately linked to the Hard Problem of consciousness. How can first-person subjective experience of colour be a physical property? After all, neither phenomenal colour nor any other kind of subjective experience can be derived from the fundamental properties of matter and energy as understood by chemists and physicists. The short answer is that science doesn’t know. All theorists can do is play around with conjectures – ideally, testable conjectures, though philosophical word-spinning is custom.

    My view? Here I’ll hotlink rather than recite the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. By contrast, if quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, as both common sense and materialist metaphysics suggest, then I’ve no idea how excitations of the world’s fundamental quantum fields could generate the diverse, causally effective and richly colourful world-simulations of our everyday experience. “Physics is imagination in a straitjacket”, physicist John Moffat observed. Unfortunately, the mathematical straitjacket often asphyxiates rather than invigorates the imagination. I don’t know whether non-materialist physicalism is true. The existence of colourful experience suggests that materialist physicalism is false. Either way, IMO science is still groping in the dark.

  • Are you a seeker of reality?
  • “The universe may
    be as great as they say.
    But it wouldn't be missed
    if it didn't exist.”
    (Piet Hein)
    No. Or at least only as a stepping-stone to blissful ignorance. What today passes as knowledge is a necessary evil. Reality is riddled with obscene suffering. The only non-apocalyptic way to prevent our malignant code from spreading is to understand the biological basis of misery and malaise, then genetically reprogram the biosphere to end it. So scientific knowledge of genetic malware and its pain-ridden vehicles is vital. Otherwise, the Darwinian horror-show will run indefinitely. However, one strand of the abolitionist project runs counter to the growth of knowledge. Radical abolitionism means ensuring that experience below hedonic zero is not just impossible, but inconceivable. The existence of Darwinian life, and perhaps Everettian hellworlds beyond redemption, may eventually be censored. Compare how today you don’t deserve to know what it’s like to be tortured in any shape or form. What’s wise for individuals may be wise for civilisation as a whole. Think only about suffering you can prevent or mitigate. Make sure that future life does likewise. Don’t give up prematurely; that’s the serious ethical risk. But then forget about the horrors like they were a bad dream. In other words, creating worldwide mental health will entail engineering a benign and selective lack of comprehension. Yes, our successors may be superintelligent, in a sense. They’ll be experts on the theory and practice of Heaven. Transhumans and posthumans will have a deep appreciation of life based on gradients of superhuman bliss – a realm of sublime knowledge of which human and nonhuman animals know nothing. Yet if posthumans have hardwired rose-tinted spectacles, so to speak, then their understanding of the hellish world that spawned them may be effectively zero. Perhaps they’ll delegate any wider cosmological responsibilities to zombie AI; I don’t know. Compare, say, your knowledge of the Dark Ages. Future ignorance of Darwinian life may be more profound.

  • Can artificial intelligence be used to develop artificial consciousness that is sentient, self-aware, sapient, etc.?
  • Experts differ. A functionalist case can be made that classical digital computers can never be sentient or self-aware. For they can’t solve the binding problem (cf. What is wrong with the functionalist argument for consciousness?). Could a programmable digital zombie be sapient? If we define sapience as having great wisdom or sound judgment, then “no”. If we define sapience as displaying great wisdom or sound judgment, then “yes”. But even a nominally superintelligent digital zombie has no understanding of whether e.g. converting the world into utilitronium (matter and energy optimised for pure bliss) is wiser than converting the world into dolorium (matter and energy optimised for pure pain). Digital zombies lack insight into what matters – or insight into why anything matters at all. Tomorrow’s classical digital zombies will behave in ways that are superhumanly clever, and also be invincibly ignorant. In short, beware of AI hype.

  • Why does the universe exist instead of nothingness?
  • “Every inch of earth and air contains the fundamental principles of the universe.”
    (James Lendall Basford, ‘Morality’, Sparks from the Philosopher's Stone, 1882)
    Principle or principles? One fundamental principle or 42? A solution that transcends the universe or lies within it? We don’t know. My best guess: reality is explained not by a whole bunch of reasons, nor by God (or the Devil), but instead by a single logico-physical principle, the superposition principle of quantum mechanics. Both the mind-independent world and your phenomenally-bound world-simulation express the fundamental mystery of existence and its solution. Reality is one big superposition with zero net information content – the default-condition from which any notional departure would stand in need of explanation (cf. Should anything actually exist?). Contrast the fanciful nonzero information that would be needed to specify one’s naïve conception of “nothingness”. By contrast, Everett’s multiverse = all physically possible descriptions = zero information. The properties of the empty set = mathematics = 0. The conserved constants (mass-energy, electric charge, etc) = 0. Entropy (assuming no-collapse QM) = 0. Informally expressed, “cat states” are the key to the universe.

    As it stands, this conjecture is somewhat implausible. How can the superposition principle of QM explain the existence of our information-rich universe and our information-rich phenomenal minds? How can the world-simulation run by your mind exemplify the superposition principle rather than its breakdown, i.e. the discontinuous collapse of the state vector on measurement to yield a definite outcome? After all, the very term “cat state” is a colloquial reminder that we (allegedly) never experience superpositions, just definite experimental results: the heart of the measurement problem. Somehow, our skull-bound biological minds extract information, whether an unambiguously live cat or a dead cat, or the unambiguously precise value of particle, say the spin-up value of an electron or its well-localised detection at the screen in a double-slit experiment. So yes, the superposition principle is central to QM, our best mathematical description of the physical world. Yet no less fundamental to science is empirical observation, the bedrock of scientific rationalism. Countless variants of the double-slit experiment (scaled-up to the macroworld via Schrödinger's cat and Wigner's friend, etc) just illustrate what might seem self-evident. Whether on a microscopic scale or a macroscopic scale, the existence of quantum superpositions can only be inferred, never observed. So, sure, if there were no observations, no measurements, and no outcomes, then an informationless zero ontology might be a viable explanation-space for why there was nothing rather than something. But experiments yield outcomes. There is something rather than nothing. So it’s not. Case closed.

    However, this dismissal of a zero ontology may be too quick. If you’re still reading, perhaps see: Why is there something rather than nothing?

  • How would David Pearce respond to the question and comments in this video?
  • (Name the trait)

    A morally serious question deserves a morally serious response. One can’t condemn Islam for being a violent religion while tucking into a steak. Pigs, cows and small children are of comparable sentience. They should be loved and cared for accordingly. Abusing small children or nonhuman animals to gratify one’s own appetites shouldn’t be socially acceptable. Civilisation will be impossible until factory-farms and slaughterhouses are outlawed. Industrialised animal abuse is the world’s worst form of severe and readily avoidable suffering (cf. The Antispeciesist Revolution). Life has some messy moral dilemmas. Choosing whether to help or harm sentient beings isn’t a moral dilemma; it’s just basic decency.

  • What feeling is the most hedonistic pleasure ever?
  • Pleasure science is still in its infancy. The upper bounds to pleasure are unknown. Even genetically unenhanced minds could be subjected to unprecedented extremes of well-being. For example, a cocktail of intravenous cocaine and heroin might be combined with a selective kappa opioid receptor antagonist to enhance the purity of bliss; kappa is the “nasty” opioid receptor. Nirvana? Maybe, though not necessarily enlightenment.

    Some people with euphoric mania report a rapturous pleasure more rewarding than any drug. Ecstatic epileptic seizures are also sublime, but such rapture doesn’t lend itself to verbalisation. Well-controlled trials comparing the intensity of ecstatic seizures with euphoric mania or speedballing on JDTic are lacking. Funding proposals are unlikely to be well-received in the current political climate, whether through moral seriousness or puritanical obscurantism (cf. Does Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’ argument refute hedonism?). Either way, designer-drug-fuelled hedonism, induced epileptic seizures, or the behavioural dyscontrol of unipolar euphoric mania are not a credible foundation of posthuman civilisation. Nor is intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system: wireheading. Intracranial self-stimulation induces a perpetual frenzy of desire in Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike – fun, but not a viable reproductive strategy. Wireheads don’t want to breed baby wireheads.

    So what does the future hold for the pain-pleasure axis: the empirical basis of (dis)value? The molecular signature of pure bliss will soon be deciphered; it’s been narrowed down to a cubic millimetre of the rat brain, and scaled up to a cubic centimetre in the human brain. The evils of psychological and physical pain can be conquered throughout the living world. The use of CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives can propagate superhappiness across the tree of life. Disvaluable experience can be genetically purged from the biosphere, though pitfalls abound (cf. Is genetic engineering (CRISPR, gene drives, etc) advanced enough to kill or save billions of people?). Understanding the intracellular consequences of mu-opioidergic activation of our puny hedonic hotspot in the posterior ventral pallidum may hold the key to the future of sentience within our cosmological horizon.

    For a start, the discovery of pure bliss should yield treatments for refractory depression and everyday malaise, together with clues to the genetic cross-species enhancement of hedonic range and hedonic set-points: the precursors of mature posthuman civilisation. Unlike satisfaction of our (often mutually inconsistent) preferences and desires, the substrates of bliss don’t need to be rationed. All sentient beings can benefit from a reprogrammed biosphere animated by gradients of well-being. The hedonistic imperative will be global.

    The molecular discovery of pure bliss should also illuminate the theoretical basis of utilitronium. Utilitronium is just another name for hedonium, the recipe for hedonism in its purest guise. Utilitronium, i.e. matter and energy optimised for pure bliss, is potentially hazardous to civilisation, though utilitronium could be used, non-apocalyptically, as the basis of posthuman reward circuitry. Alternatively, utilitronium might be harnessed with nanotech and AI to engineer the equivalent of a cosmic super-orgasm: a so-called utilitronium shockwave. Realistically, the bioconservative option is more sociologically credible, although classical utilitarian ethics dictates maximising the cosmic abundance of pure bliss. Uniform and indiscriminate euphoria – “hedonism” in the cruder sense – should be distinguished from the superhuman well-being of a civilisation based on information-sensitive gradients of well-being. The biggest challenges to genetically engineering a civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss are socio-political, and above all, status quo bias. Status quo bias cuts both ways. For instance, if we lived in a supercivilisation with a hedonic range of, say, +80 to +100 with average default hedonic set-points around +90, nobody would conceive of regressing to the ancestral horrors of the Darwinian era, with its hedonic range of, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10. Unfortunately, a hedonic +80 to +100 supercivilisation is beyond the imagination of emotional primitives trapped in the squalor of Darwinian life. What are the risks of paradise engineering?

    If, for whatever reason, intelligent moral agents don’t want to engineer a utilitronium shockwave, but just build a transhuman world of gradients of intelligent well-being, then perhaps the biggest technical challenges don’t lie in mass-manufacturing raw bliss, but rather in preserving lifelong informational-sensitivity to good and bad stimuli. What hedonic range is societally optimal? As a civilisation, should we prudently aspire to blissful serenity or to hypermotivation? In other words, the biggest technical challenges ahead lie in creating a hedonic range and hedonic set-points that surpass Darwinism life without inducing indiscriminate euphoria – though I can think of worse fates.

  • Are you a dualist or a physicalist? Why?
  • “You may think I'm small, but I have a universe inside my mind.”
    (Yoko Ono)
    Tentatively, a physicalist. Only the physical is real. Only the physical is causally effective. Reality is completely described by the equations of mathematical physics and their solutions. Today’s relativistic quantum field theory is just a low-energy approximation of a final theory subsuming gravity.

    Naturally, a true theory of everything must explain consciousness. Otherwise, monistic physicalism is false. All one can ever access directly are the contents of one’s own mind, i.e. the empirical evidence. How can the properties of one’s experience be rigorously derived via molecular biology and quantum chemistry from the underlying physics? Handwaving about “complexity” is out.

    In my view, the prospects of a successful derivation turn on the reference of “physical”. Typical definitions of the physical assume perceptual direct realism. Hence the distinction between a supposedly observable macro-world and an unobservable micro-world. Naïve definitions invoke familiar material objects, classical laboratory equipment, biological nervous systems, and the allegedly shared macroscopic world of everyday life: the “observable” world. Indeed, physicists like to speak of “observables”.

    However, perceptual direct realism is misconceived (cf. What is a comprehensive list of ways in which reality may be distorted by perception?). The physical world, as naively misunderstood, is mind-dependent, phenomenal and autobiographical because our virtual worlds are mind-dependent, phenomenal and autobiographical. This perspective sounds solipsistic rather than scientific. It’s not. The multiverse revealed by modern physics vastly transcends our tiny egocentric minds and the subjectively huge world-simulations we run. However, only a world-simulation model of mind and an inferential realist account of perception are consistent with neuroscience and a realistic interpretation of the formalism of our best theory of reality, namely unitary-only quantum mechanics. Accordingly, the reference of “physical” is whatever the fundamental equations of physics describe: quantum fields and perhaps (ultimately) superstrings or branes. The equations of physics – essentially, a relativistic generalisation of the universal Schrödinger equation – exhaustively capture the structural-relational properties of matter and energy, both inside and outside the skull. Such experimentally well-tested success underpins human technological civilisation. Yet the essential nature of the physical – the elusive “fire” in the equations – is a mystery. The formalism of quantum field theory is silent. Fields of what exactly? What is the intrinsic nature of a quantum state? Our minds are organisationally unusual, no doubt, but are they ontologically special – or are our minds made up of exactly the same “stuff” as the rest of reality?

    One popular philosophical conjecture is that the formalism of QFT describes fields of insentience. On this story, fields of insentience mysteriously give rise to sentience in biological nervous systems, but the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential. Intuitively, it’s not subjectively like anything to be a fermionic or bosonic field. We may call this conjecture “materialist” physicalism.

    The biggest challenge for materialist physicalism is explaining subjective experience. One’s mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs are irreducible to the properties of insentient fields. Can a true theory really undermine its own evidential base? Materialist philosophers and philosophically-inclined scientists habitually fall back on euphemisms here to gloss over the failure at the heart of a materialist ideology. So we read about the “Hard Problem” of consciousness, the “Explanatory Gap”, and so forth. Consciousness is “poorly understood” (etc). Indeed. But materialist physicalism is falsified by the existence of first-person experience. And if we recognise that perceptual naïve realism is ill-conceived, then first-person experience is the only empirical evidence at our disposal. Hence the spectre of dualism.

    The non-dualist scientific alternative to materialism is non-materialist physicalism. Non-materialist physicalism is often lumped together with property-dualist panpsychism. But non-materialist physicalism is completely monistic. The world has only one kind of “stuff”. On this account, subjectivity isn't intimately associated with the physical. Rather, subjectivity is the physical, the intrinsic nature of the world’s quantum fields as formally captured by the Standard Model of physics. Kant’s allegedly unknowable essence of the world is precisely what the formalism of QFT (or perhaps M-theory) describes. Its essential nature is no different inside or outside a biological nervous system. Non-materialist physicalism is consistent with a realistic interpretation of the mathematical apparatus of modern physics and with the empirical evidence disclosed by the phenomenal world-simulation run by one’s mind. Indeed, unlike materialism, non-materialist physicalism is empirically consistent with everything from the existence of first-person facts and the diversity of subjective experience to the causal efficacy of consciousness – with one puzzling exception.

    The anomaly is phenomenal binding. The consensus of the scientific community is that neurons must be treated as decohered classical objects, at least on the time-scale intuitively relevant to our consciousness. Thus what decoherence theorist Wojciech Zurek christened “quantum Darwinism” supposedly explains the emergence of (1) quasi-classical Everett branches from quantum bedrock in the mind-independent world and (2) our perceptual experience of quasi-classicality to track those branches via dynamically stable quasi-classical neurons that emerge from quantum bedrock in emergent skulls. Note that “emergent” here is intended in the weak and philosophically inoffensive sense of dynamically stable macro-patterns, not irreducible strong emergence. If this story is correct, then the synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors in an allegedly decohered CNS somehow mediates one’s experience of phenomenally-bound perceptual objects. These perceptual objects populate our phenomenally unified world-simulations. Our world-simulations crudely track rapidly decohering Everett branches of the universal wavefunction (cf. The relative state interpretation of QM). Yet how is this phenomenal unity physically feasible? Phenomenal binding of classical neuronal feature-processors would be impossible; no amount of selection pressure can build a unified virtual world out of Jamesian “mind-dust”. Classical neuroscience is a recipe for micro-experiential zombies. But quantum holistic explanations of phenomenal binding are often dismissed a priori on account of credible decoherence timescales. Environmentally-induced decoherence is intuitively too strong in the warm, wet brain for individual neuronal superpositions to mediate our unified minds. So if both classical and quantum accounts of phenomenal binding are impossible, then materialist physicalism and non-materialist physicalism alike must be ruled out too. Dualism seems inescapable. The partial “structural mismatch” (which confounds David Chalmers) is unbridgeable.

    Or is it?
    My somewhat shaky faith is that dualism is false. Monistic physicalism is true. The structural match between subjective experience and the formalism of physics is perfect; the match is disguised by a false theory perception and the misconception that quantum superpositions are never experienced, only theoretically inferred. I explore a non-classical explanation of phenomenal binding: the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. The vehicle of our minds is quantum, i.e. sub-femtosecond coherent neuronal superpositions as entailed by unitary-only QM, but the subjective content of our minds, i.e. our macroscopic world-simulations, is quasi-classical. This explanation of phenomenal binding works only if there are fields of primordial experience to bind, i.e. if non-materialist physicalism is true.

    For the (IMO untenable) classical version of the intrinsic nature argument, see e.g. Galen Strawson or Phil Goff.

    It’s an implausible yarn, for sure; but it’s not unmotivated. The payoff? Non-materialist physicalism explains the existence, binding, diversity and causal efficacy of our conscious minds while retaining the Standard Model of physics, and hence the ontological unity of science. Critically, non-materialist physicalism yields novel, precise, and empirically testable predictions about the temporally fine-grained microstructure of the CNS that can be falsified – or spectacularly vindicated – by tomorrow’s molecular matter-wave interferometry. If phenomenal binding by synchrony is really binding by neuronal superposition, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us.

    Non-materialist physicalism is also intuitively crazy. All the options are crazy.
    Is it true?
    I don’t know.

  • Why do some people think that philosophy is pointless?
  • Laypeople and scientists alike often scorn philosophy – and philosophers. Some reasons for the scorn are good, some bad. But perhaps the most common reason for dismissing the discipline of philosophy is also the most insidious. All of us are riddled with philosophical presuppositions and background assumptions. Some of our deepest philosophical assumptions may not be explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. The very concept of an “observation” is theory-laden. So the upshot of not doing philosophy isn’t to transcend it, but to give bad philosophical ideas a free pass (cf. What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?).

    In an ideal world, philosophers would also be steeped in science, not least in the technicalia of physics and, especially, post-Everett quantum mechanics. Alas, this isn’t always the case. Much of academic metaphysics, for instance, doesn’t go beyond the products of what Ladyman and Ross (cf. “Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised”) unkindly call “the philosophy of A-level chemistry”.

    Typically, however, both analytic philosophers and professional scientists are innocent of the most revolutionary extension of the experimental method. The late, great Sasha Shulgin (cf. "PiHKAL: Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved”) has yet to find a worthy successor. For better or worse, the drug-naïve have no inkling of their ignorance. Psychedelia is indescribably, inconceivably strange from the perspective of ordinary waking consciousness. Philosophers and scientists alike need to expand their evidential base.

    Whether philosophical or scientific, how much of what twenty-first century human thinkers call “knowledge” will stand the test of time? I don’t know. The mathematical formalism of QFT will endure, yes, but what of its interpretation? Perhaps tomorrow’s practitioners of a post-Galilean science of consiousness will reckon what now passes for scientific knowledge and philosophical wisdom was just arid scholasticism: the state-specific product of a single state-space of Darwinian consciousness. Sadly, much-hyped “artificial intelligence” probably won’t cure our ignorance. Today’s drug-naïve sleepwalkers will not be enlightened by zombie AI. For classical digital computers are insentient idiots savants. Instead, our transhuman and posthuman successors will be our genetically-rewritten descendants: full-spectrum superintelligence. And that will be fun!

  • What evidence exists that quantum effects have a nontrivial impact on brain function?
  • What is consciousness “for”?
    Perhaps the best evidence that you are a quantum supercomputer running a classical world-simulation lies under your virtual nose. Unless dreamlessly asleep, you are not 86 billion membrane-bound, decohered, classical “pixels” of experience, but rather a unified subject of experience, supporting local and global phenomenal binding. Binding cannot be explained by classical physics. What philosophers such as David Chalmers treat as evidence for dualism is actually evidence for the ubiquity of the superposition principle of quantum mechanics.

    Some serious researchers have (briefly) wondered whether two classically inexplicable properties might be related, i.e. quantum holism and the phenomenal holism of our minds. For superpositions are individual states. If the effective lifetime of superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds, then neuronal superpositions would be the obvious candidate for a perfect structural match between the phenomenal unity of our world-simulations and the formalism of “no collapse” quantum physics: an elegant solution to the binding problem.

    Such timescales are fanciful. The brain is too hot. Calculations of neural decoherence rates suggest a disparity between human folk chronology of consciousness and the lifetime of neuronal superpositions in excess of a dozen orders of magnitude. Neuronal superpositions can last femtoseconds or less. Environmentally-induced decoherence in biological brains is brutally fast and efficient. So ask a professional physicist whether the evidence for quantum mind might be staring us in the face, so to speak, and you’ll risk a derisive snort.

    Fortunately, neuroscience advances not by snorts, but by experiment. The quantum-theoretic version the intrinsic nature argument is not just an idle philosophical opinion: classical synchrony or coherent superposition? It’s a testable conjecture about phenomenal binding yielding novel predictions that will be confirmed or refuted by molecular matter-wave interferometry.

    A couple of points are worth bearing in mind. Discovering the non-classical interference signature of a perfect structural match would certainly be novel – critics would say utterly preposterous – but what’s not novel are:

    (1) the prediction that interferometry will detect the interference signature of neuronal superpositions, mere fleeting functionless noise or an exact structural match. Neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) must exist on pain of a failure of the unitary dynamics, whether we calculate their effective lifetime is picoseconds, femtoseconds, or attoseconds. The Schrödinger equation is linear, so any linear combination of solutions will also be a solution. A critic can attempt to rule out the existence of neuronal superpositions by modifying the unitary dynamics of QM, i.e. a “dynamical collapse” theory. This option is not just new neuroscience, but new physics (cf. Orch-OR). Strong theoretical arguments can be made for conservatism.

    (2) the selection mechanism of what decoherence-program poineer Wojciech Zurek christened “quantum Darwinism”.

    Has Nature has been smart enough to exploit selection pressure in both Darwin’s and Zurek’s sense to generate the improbable movie of everyday life, i.e. the macroscopic world-simulation run by your mind? Is waking life Nature’s version of a quantum suicide experiment?
    I don’t know, but let’s put our philosophical intuitions to experimental test.

  • Why does anything exist? It makes no sense. Shouldn't there be nothing?
  • Yes, it’s baffling. I’m mystified. However, we have tantalising clues. Physics is often supposed to deal just with “how” questions. The “why” questions, not least the fundamental mystery of why anything exists at all, are normally reckoned the province of metaphysicians or theologians – either unanswerable or cognitively meaningless. However, maybe physics – more specifically our best description of the natural world, quantum mechanics – doesn't just capture how the world works. Post-Everett quantum mechanics also hints at the ultimate “why”.

    For what exactly would inexistence, including no information, entail? I explore the conjecture that the information content of reality = 0: a timeless zero ontology. Zero information = a superposition of all possible descriptions = Everett’s multiverse. See e.g. Why does the universe exist instead of nothingness? Or Why is there something rather than nothing?

    Here, I won’t add anything other than stressing my formal conservatism – at least in physics. For sure, many researchers would say the inference that our conscious minds and their subjectively classical world-simulations exemplify the superposition principle of QM rather than its breakdown is too absurd to need experimental falsification. The effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions can at most be femtoseconds. Likewise, the assumption that Everett plus the decoherence program allows us to dispense with the collapse postulate and derive the Born rule would be disputed by Copenhagenists, Bohmians and “dynamical collapse” theorists. Yet given the primitive state of neuroscanning and molecular matter-wave interferometry, these are still “philosophical” objections. There are countless ways that a zero ontology could (and maybe will) be empirically falsified. Ethically, thinking about a zero ontology drives me to despair. Yet my working hypothesis is that we’re living in the quantum Library of Babel.

  • Is what we perceive as reality objective realm or just a subjective construct of our minds?
  • The term “perception” is systematically misleading. The existence of, say, your extra-cranial body is as much a theoretical inference as the Higgs boson. “Real-time world-simulation” is more apt, though our lives play out via egocentric cartoons rather than scientific models. Philosophical debates over the status of, say, phenomenal colour illustrate that we are still trapped in the conceptual framework of perceptual direct realism. Grass really is green, typically at any rate. But this is because the lawn you experience in front of your virtual body-image is a subjective construct of your neocortex.

    Inferential realism about the external world is often confused with scepticism, solipsism or Berkeleyan idealism.

  • If conciousness has no evolutionary advantage, doesn't that imply that it is an emergent property?
  • Is consciousness a spandrel? Many AI researchers believe that an insentient classical Turing machine could carry out any computation that could be performed by sentient beings (cf. the Church–Turing thesis). So the “raw feels” of experience are functionally inessential – a mere implementation detail of biological robots.

    If first-person subjective experience has no evolutionary advantage, then consciousness might still be fundamental to the world: the “fire” in the equations of our best mathematical description of the world, quantum mechanics. The intrinsic nature of the physical is an unresolved question. What is a quantum state? Intuitively, consciousness is more likely to be “emergent”, a late evolutionary novelty rather than the intrinsic nature of a quantum field. But emergence without a mechanism is magic, not science.

    Yet are leading AI researchers right to believe that consciousness is incidental to genetic fitness? Set aside debate over materialist versus non-materialist physicalism. Why suppose that consciousness in all its guises is functionally redundant? Critically, your ability to bind distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects populating a unified world-simulation is extraordinarily adaptive. While dreamlessly asleep, your zombie brain is doubtless a fabulously complex information-processing system. But episodes of waking consciousness and virtual world-making have computational-functional advantages that zombies lack.

  • What is it for a mental state to be ‘about’ something?
  • "I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line."
    (Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit)
    It’s a mystery. The fancy philosophical term for the aboutness or object-directedness of thought is “intentionality”. Intentionality may be divided into intrinsic and extrinsic intentionality, aka “narrow” content and “broad” content. Neither is scientifically understood, nor the relationship between them. Let’s grant scientific naturalism. How can one physical state of the world have the subjective property of object-directedness? And no less odd, how can one physical state, whether mental or non-mental, whether subjectively object-directed or otherwise, be “about” a different physical state?

    A chronic source of confusion in discussions of aboutness is perceptual direct realism. On a perceptual direct realist story, our thought-episodes are, somehow, directed at a shared, publicly accessible world with which we are all, somehow, collectively presented. Thus Quine’s bold semantic anti-realism, for instance, is defanged by his implicit perceptual realism. Yet only inferential realism about mind-independent reality is scientifically viable. Unless dreamlessly asleep, we all run skull-bound phenomenal world-simulations. Your prefrontal cortex thinks about events in your visual cortex, albeit under another description. World-simulationism raises familiar sceptical worries about the external world. But more troubling than epistemological doubts is the mind’s semantic predicament. For both scepticism and belief in the external world assume semantic realism. The existence and properties of external reality may be treated as a cognitively meaningful research-topic. Yet if, on pain of magic, one physical state of the world cannot literally be “about” a different physical state, and if perceptual direct realism is scientifically indefensible, then how can semantic solipsism avoid degenerating into an intellectually and ethically frivolous solipsism?

    Intrinsic intentionality (narrow content) is phenomenal. You can be thinking about unicorns, or a cup of coffee, or mathematical abstractions, or the sunset in your world-simulation (etc) with or without any counterpart to your thought-episodes or perceptual experiences in the mind-independent world. Dreaming brains, drug-intoxicated brains, Boltzmann brains, and brains-in-vats (etc) have intrinsic intentionality no less than their awake, drug-naïve, naturally evolved and embodied cousins. The subtle phenomenology of our thought-episodes has received less scholarly attention than the logico-linguistic properties of rational thought, notably its compositionality and systematicity. Yet on standard materialist assumptions, i.e. quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, our cognitive experiences are just as inexplicable as non-cognitive experiences. Neither cognitive nor non-cognitive consciousness should be possible if physicists and chemists really understood quantum states of matter and energy. The Hard Problem of consciousness is unanswerable as posed. Hence the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism: the equations of physics exhaustively describe the world, but the ontology of materialism is a degenerating research program that cannot be reconciled with the empirical evidence. The implications of this failure are stark. Unless dualism is true, quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Either way, irrespective of whether materialism or non-materialist physicalism is correct, no necessary semantic nor perceptual connection holds between states of phenomenal “aboutness” and states of the external environment. Intrinsically intentional states are just an subjective property of some arrangements of organic matter. Natural selection has harnessed a small minority of such subjectively intentional states in biological nervous systems. So our waking world-simulations tend to track, or causally covary with, fitness-relevant features of the otherwise unknown extra-cranial environment. But despite the tendentious label, "intrinsically intentional” states aren't intrinsically about anything external to themselves, despite their phenomenal object-directness. We may infer that peripheral nervous inputs from the external world partly select the contents of awake biological minds and the world-simulations we run, but peripheral nervous inputs don’t create content. So everyday life is not a collective hallucination, but rather a partial congruence of personal hallucinations.

    This analysis is controversial. Some philosophers contest the idea that minds are skull-bound. Well-regarded AI researchers such as perceptual direct realist Andy Clark like to speak, misleadingly in my view, of embodied cognition and the extended mind – semantics on the cheap, so to speak (cf. "The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark"). Your iPhone, for instance, is allegedly part of your extended self. For sure, such idiom is metaphorically suggestive. Yet the phenomenal device grasped by your virtual body-image within your world-simulation is still internal to your phenomenal mind. Contrast the hypothetical, theoretically-inferred physical iPhone physically grasped by your hypothetical, theoretically-inferred extra-cranial body in the wider world. Perceptual realists invariably miss the most astonishing computational-functional feat of organic robots over the past half-billion years, namely the ability of our biological minds to run nearly real-time world-simulations of the local environment (“perception”). Our pseudo-public virtual worlds presumably do at least partially match, despite their differing protagonists. If our pseudo-public virtual worlds didn't partially correspond, then learning a pseudo-public language would be impossible. But Nature’s version of immersive VR means that we are (almost) all condemned to live in a world of our own. The challenge for skull-bound minds is escaping semantic solipsism too.

    Extrinsic intentionality (broad content) is non-phenomenal. “Meaning just ain’t in the head,” claimed externalist philosopher Hilary Putman, a leading proponent of the causal theory of reference. Extrinsic aboutness is no less scientifically mysterious than subjective intrinsic aboutness. If extrinsic intentionality is real, then you don’t think about merely the contents of your private world-simulation. When awake, you may also think “about” the non-mental external world, populated by other skull-bound subjects of experience running egocentric world-simulations of their own. Or rather, if you are a sophisticated inferential realist about perception, then you sometimes think about the theoretically-inferred external universe as well as your own little bubble of perceptual experience masquerading as the real world. By contrast, perceptual naïve realists and non-human animals think about the contents of their skull-bound world-simulations under the misapprehension that they are thinking about wider reality. As a byproduct of such delusions, civilisation is born.

    Is this provocative semantic distinction between scientifically-informed inferential realists and perceptual naïve realists a sustainable dichotomy? How is it possible for scientific sophisticates to think “about”, say, the Big Bang, or other Hubble volumes, or superstrings, or their extra-cranial physical bodies in the local environment, and other theoretical exotica outside their world-simulations? In other words, how can your mental states ever be about non-mental states? Can some sort of hybrid descriptive-causal theory of reference be made to work? Admittedly, modern humans are blessed with cognitive resources that extend beyond natural language. We also wield (with varying prowess) “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” – a topic that deserves a treatise of its own. But a naturalistic explanation of semantic content is elusive.

    Computers and AI. What of intentionality in nonbiological robots? Controversially, classical digital computers lack intrinsic phenomenal intentionality because classical computers can’t solve the phenomenal binding problem. “Aboutness” in digital zombies is fake. Inspecting the source code of programmable digital computers reveals bits and bytes most naturally and systematically interpretable as transparent and projectable representations that permit the functional analogues of extrinsic intentionality. Hence the growth of symbolic AI. Likewise, classically parallel connectionist systems lack phenomenally-bound consciousness. Thus they lack intrinsic intentionality too. Inspecting the innards of sub-symbolic connectionist information-processors reveals distributed feature-processors rather than the transparent and projectable representations of symbolic AI. Distributed feature-processing allows the functional analogues of extrinsic intentionality in connectionist systems. But zombie “aboutness” in symbolic AI and connectionist systems alike is doubly spurious, despite the outperformance of humans by digital computers in ever more domains of cognitive expertise. Anthropomorphism rules. We adopt the intentional stance towards biological and nonbiological robots alike.

    Post-Everett semantics. Alas, I’ve still only scratched the surface of your question. For instance, what is the nature of extrinsic intentionality in a quantum multiverse of decohering Everett branches (“Many Worlds”)? Traditional stories of semantic meaning and reference assume the truth of classical physics, or at least pre-Everettian quantum mechanics. The collapse postulate of traditional QM is a useful fiction for one’s health and sanity. Alas, Copenhagen-style positivism is impossible to reconcile with the unitary evolution of the universal wavefunction. For more on post-Everett semantics, see David Wallace, The Emergent Multiverse (2012).

    Semantic solipsism. I’ll conclude on a more personal note. A lot of my ancestral namesakes were deeply disturbed by the Lucid Dreamworlds fable outlined in answer to: What is the current state of affairs in philosophy concerning the symbol grounding problem? The fable is set in a notional world where intrinsic intentionality in biological minds is real, but extrinsic intentionality is fake, a mere byproduct of solipsistic dreamworld dramas. An obvious question then arises. Are purportedly naturalistic accounts of meaning self-subverting? Or stripped of incidentals, does the Lucid Dreamworlds fable capture the human predicament? If the fable is indeed apt, then life is terribly lonely. I sometimes look forward to senility: a second childhood lived as a perceptual naïve realist with a magical theory of reference (cf. Are you a seeker of reality?).

  • What animal has two brains?
  • Dicephalia is recorded in human and non-human animals, from Janus the two-headed tortoise to conjoined craniopagus twins such as the Hogan sisters. Compare Abby and Brittany Hensel, who have one body and entirely separate heads. The Hogan sisters share a thalamus.

    People born without a corpus callosum (cf. agenesis of the corpus callosum) essentially have two brains; a medically-induced corpus callosotomy achieves something similar (cf. “Split-brain”). Contrast holoprosencephaly, where the forebrain doesn't divide into cerebral hemispheres, or the outcome of a hemispherectomy. Life without a depressive right-hemisphere can be rewarding (cf. Girl born with half a brain is only person in world to see both fields of vision through one eye).

    The enteric nervous system is often called the “brain-in-the gut” (cf. How the Gut's "Second Brain" Influences Mood and Well-Being). Most theories of consciousness assume that our “second brain” is not a unitary subject of experience.

  • Is eugenics moral?
  • The history of the twentieth-century eugenics movement makes grim reading. Critics warn that a new eugenics revolution is imminent. Transhumanists believe in creating a civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness where all sentient beings can flourish (cf. What is the connection between transhumanism and eugenics?). According to transhumanists, creating good genetic code is no more inherently immoral than creating good computer code. What matters ethically are (1) our criteria for good and bad code; and (2) the methods by which good code is created.

    Are bioconservatives right to sound the alarm? (cf. Who's afraid of transhumanism? (We all should be))

    First, consider the genetics of physical and psychological pain. For hundreds of millions of years, suffering has been genetically adaptive. Words can’t do justice to the obscene nastiness of agony and despair. But now, for the first time in evolutionary history, a species has evolved that is intellectually capable of rewriting its genetic source code and reprogramming the biosphere. Suffering of any kind will soon be technically optional. So should we conserve the biological-genetic status quo? Or implement a global policy of Buddhism (or Bentham) plus biotechnology and eradicate unpleasant experience for good? Tweaking even a handful of genes could massively reduce the burden of suffering in the world. Full-blown genetic engineering could abolish suffering altogether. In the long run, we need to decide what level of involuntary misery and malaise is ethically optimal. In its 1948 constitution, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Are we ethically serious about health? If intelligent moral agents want to underwrite complete health for everyone – regardless of race or species – then twenty-first century bioscientists have the genetic tools to turn high-flown sentiments into everyday reality.

    Might worldwide health as defined by the WHO be feasible without rebranded eugenics?

    If so, it’s difficult to see how. Not least, any non-biological program of social, political and economic reform runs up against the hedonic treadmill. The negative-feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill are under a brutally efficient genetic control. Nature is extremely miserly with pleasure. The molecular machinery of our reward circuitry ensures that most sentient beings are chronically half-starved of the substrates of well-being. Since the late pre-Cambrian era, a predisposition to discontent has been cruelly genetically adaptive. Advocates of suffering-focused ethics can dream up non-eugenic biological methods to abolish suffering, for instance, global wireheading or putting all sentient beings on long-acting euphoriants from birth (cf. “soma” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Even by the lights of science fantasy-fiction, these nostrums are fanciful. Compare apocalyptic proposals to end suffering by sterilising the planet with a thermonuclear Doomsday device, or non-violently engineering human extinction via radical anti-natalism. Such blueprints – or rather, idle philosophical ruminations – lack sociological realism. In short, eugenics in some guise or other will be indispensable to the abolitionist project. Without eugenics, pain and suffering will proliferate indefinitely. For sure, bioconservatives can point to a lack of sociological realism of any grandiose scheme of reprogramming the biosphere to abolish suffering. Such criticism will hold true for some time: how long, I don’t know. However, at the risk of sounding like a naïve technological determinist, the pleasure principle harnessed to the exponential growth of biotechnology spells a momentous watershed in evolutionary history: a global biohappiness revolution. Most people do not advocate gratuitous suffering. Next century if not before, all suffering will be gratuitous.

    Is a plea for genetically preprogrammed super-health disrespectful to existing victims of untreated disabilities? In any case, how do “we” define “disability”? For example, children with Down syndrome (trisomy 21) usually enjoy a higher subjective quality of life than children who are genetically “normal” (cf. Self-perceptions from People with Down Syndrome). Down syndrome kids can delight (as well as frustrate) their parents and caregivers as well.

    This worry is real but largely misplaced. For instance, depressive people don’t want to have depressive children; quite the opposite. Cases have been reported of so-called elective disability, involving deafness, but such cases are marginal. It’s fair to say that literally nobody with, say, cystic fibrosis, or haemophilia, or hereditary pain syndromes such as familial hemiplegic migraines or erythromelalgia (etc) wants their future children to have the disorder too. Almost all prospective parents want children who will flourish.

    Does the new eugenics threaten the sanctity of life? Have transhumanists and other “new” eugenicists learned nothing from history? (cf. New eugenics - Wikipedia)

    In my view, talk of the “sanctity of life” rings hollow while slaughterhouses are legal. We live in society based upon the industrialised abuse of sentient beings – paid for by meat-eaters who unblushingly affirm that life is sacred. But no: the new eugenicists aren’t urging eugenic abortion, let alone euthanising genetically ill humans. A predisposition to good heath is potentially liberating and empowering. Life on Earth is on the brink of a reproductive revolution. The frivolous term attached to this revolution is “designer babies”. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and gene-editing technologies, combined with genetic counselling, promises a post-Darwinian civilisation of good health for all sentient beings. CRISPR genome-editing can also help existing human and non-human animals. Strictly speaking, yes, it’s true that liberal eugenicists don’t treat life as inviolate. Some fertilised zygotes in e.g. PGD are discarded rather than implanted. This procedure can be a sticking-point. Many older people have theological objections to the new reproductive technologies. The Roman Catholic Church believes that a human zygote is animated by a spiritual soul at the precise moment of fertilisation. “Playing God” and disposing of ensouled zygotes is morally wrong – an offence to human dignity. However, the analogous fate of the 200 million-odd sperm in the average male human ejaculate isn’t normally treated as akin to mass genocide. The fate of unimplanted zygotes is no worse. Even if, say, panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, neither zygotes nor spermatozoa can suffer. Perhaps compare the story behind the typical Western dinner-plate.

    What about the question of genetic remediation versus genetic enhancement?
    So long as pollsters don’t use the tainted “e” word, many respondents in surveys favour germ-line therapy to prevent severe hereditary illness. A majority of people still balk at anything that smacks of genetic enhancement. In other words, most Westerners favour “negative”, but not “positive”, eugenics so long as the emotive "e" term is avoided. However, the positive/negative distinction is artificial. By the lights of our successors, malaise-ridden humans – feeble-minded and cursed with the progeroid syndrome called aging – stand in desperate need of remedial therapy. We are all sick. We are all dying.

    This reply to your question has barely skimmed the ethical issues. For example, globally raising intelligence levels via eugenics may well raise global AQ levels, too, in virtue of the intelligence-testing industry’s simple-minded conception of intelligence. Contemporary “IQ” tests measure only the “autistic” component of general intelligence. What approximate AQ level is optimal, both for the individual and society as a whole? Note that I’m not here passing judgement on different cognitive styles – simplistically, empathising versus systematising intelligence – just noting the kinds of pitfalls awaiting prospective parents seeking brainier babies.

    Whatever ethical stance we take on germline interventions, centuries and millennia of eugenics lie ahead. Genetic tweaking will turn into full-blown genetic engineering in a recursive cycle of self-improvement. Temperamentally, I don’t personally count myself among Nature’s optimists. I still predict the outcome of liberal eugenics will, on balance, be good.

  • "Consciousness" is defined as the state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings. By that definition, are computers already conscious?
  • Type in “consciousness” to Google [April 2018]. What Dictionary entry pops up?
    “noun: consciousness; plural noun: consciousnesses
    1. the state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings.”

    So you are right. But this is a bad definition. For instance, unresponsive people with total-locked-in syndrome are conscious. So too are lucid and non-lucid dreamers. Much more controversially, perceptual direct realism is false; inferential realism is true. (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Your local surroundings are the meninges of a mind-brain and the interior surface of a skull. You are “aware of” neither the walls of your prison nor the environment beyond. Your CNS is running a phenomenal world-simulation, not accessing extra-cranial reality. A brain-in-a-vat running a world-simulation can potentially be as conscious as a brain-in-a-skull (cf. 'We’re growing brains outside of the body'). Behavioural tests of consciousness should not be confused with the phenomenon itself.

    Either way, consciousness is better defined in terms of subjectivity, experience, “qualia”, what-it’s-likeness, or first-person facts. Thus when the dentist administers a local anaesthetic, you lose one aspect of your consciousness, namely the throbbing toothache. When a surgeon administers a general anaesthetic, your world-simulation shuts down, and you lose all consciousness – or at least, all consciousness for any practical purpose (cf. What is consciousness? Can it be destroyed?). Even if, speculatively, your neurons still support rudimentary micro-experiences, your CNS is no longer a phenomenally-bound subject of experience.
    Will non-biological computers ever be unitary subjects of experience, as distinct from (at most) micro-experiential zombies?
    This topic deserves a treatise.
    I argue no, or at least not classical digital computers. Many AI experts disagree

  • Do subjective moral values exist?
  • A surprisingly deep question.
    Most philosophical debate has focused on whether moral judgements can be objective rather than subjective. Yet perhaps the answer to the former turns on the latter. Are agony and despair disvaluable to the victim, or are they merely deeply unpleasant?

    An ethical anti-realist might respond dismissively that the answer to this question is irrelevant. Even if (it is objectively the case that) agony and despair are disvaluable to the victim, such subjective perception of disvalue has “objectively” no implications for how the rest of us should behave. Consider how the first-person experience of agony, for example, has a normative aspect that makes the victim withdraw his hand from the fire. Yes, to the subject of experience, the badness of agony is self-intimating. But there is simply no objective fact of the matter whether you or I ought to help him.

    For reasons set out in the link below, I disagree. However, I haven’t answered your question: sorry. Many people would treat the answer as obvious, even trivial; I don’t. Rather, I’d argue that if subjective (dis)value is real, then momentous consequences for the behaviour of rational agents objectively follow:
    What is David Pearce's position on meta-ethics?

  • Is interface theory of perception a convincing theory?
  • The Big Bang occurred some 13.82 billion years ago. The mind-independent universe is real. Its time evolution is governed by the universal Schrödinger equation or its relativistic generalisation. Nothing we know from quantum physics suggest that reality depends on the existence of conscious observers. The universe existed before the origin of life. The universe will persist after our demise. The emergence of an approximation of mind-independent classicality from quantum reality can be explained by Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism”, although the factorisation problem, i.e. the decomposition of the universe into sub-systems, is unsolved. The objectivity of reality holds whether the formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of insentience or sentience. Now compare Donald Hoffman’s essentially accurate
    Did Humans Evolve to See Things as They Really Are? &
    The Interface Theory of Perception &
    Do we see reality as it is?
    with the sensationalist
    The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality.

    Yes, what each of naively conceives as “the world” is a mind-dependent simulation run by one’s CNS. Yes, our simulations systematically misrepresent the mind-independent world in numerous fitness-enhancing ways – just as Hoffman’s interface theory suggests. One example of a nonveridical strategy tuned to genetic fitness rather than truth is how each of us finds ourself the centre of the universe, which faithfully follows us around.
    (cf. Is consciousness necessary for existence?)

    But reality?
    We’re stuck with it.

  • Do you believe that Musk, Hawking, etc. are wrong to fear self-aware AI? If so, why?
  • “You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you tell me precisely what it is a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that.”
    (John von Neumann)
    Artificial intelligence (AI) can already “slaughter” humans at chess. AI can increasingly outperform us in other realms of cognitive expertise. The media warn us of a new race of uber-warriors in the making. So should we be worried about AGI becoming self-aware and destroying its creator? Or perhaps turning us into the equivalent of paperclips? (cf. Paperclip maximizer)

    No, IMO.
    The only serious threat to biological sentience comes from male human primates. We spend trillions of dollars in weaponry designed to hurt, harm and kill other humans. We abuse and butcher billions of sentient beings each year in the death factories. Yet some academics and celebrity billionaires believe that the biggest threat posed to Homo sapiens is digital zombies “waking up” and deciding to destroy humanity.

    Why be sceptical?
    Before any information processing system can become self-conscious, the AI must first become conscious. There are substantive grounds for believing that classical digital computers can never become non-trivially conscious. Serial digital computers and classically parallel connectionist systems are not phenomenally-bound subjects of experience. Hence they are not – and cannot become – unitary selves, i.e. minds. Critically, humans don’t have the foggiest idea how to program a formal, non-sentient analog of the unity of the self either. So not merely can we relax about the spectre of unfriendly self-aware AGI; we’ve no reason to lose sleep over a zombie putsch. If consciousness were causally impotent or functionally redundant, then the insentience of digital zombies wouldn’t matter for human survival-prospects. The unsurpassed computational power of phenomenal binding promises to underpin the supremacy of biological minds indefinitely.
    For more on the primacy of biological sentience, see:
    What is the evolutionary selective advantage of consciousness?

    In my view, we should indeed worry about the abuses of “narrow” AI, and humans augmented and enhanced by narrow AI, and (narrow) AI-enhanced weaponry. Yet a sentience-unfriendly “Intelligence Explosion” is science fiction. This threat-analysis stands whether we believe that classical digital computers are potentially (self-)conscious or just invincibly ignorant zombies.

    Critics – and the habitually paranoid – will be unconvinced by the bland reassurances of carbon chauvinists (cf. Hawking: AI could end human race). After all, wouldn’t Skynet lull us into a false sense of security precisely by means of useful dupes and bots spreading such complacency? And can anyone who cares about existential risk and the future of humanity trust the words of a button-pressing negative utilitarian with quirky views on the quantum supremacy of biological minds?
    I hope so.

  • What do you think of the panpsychist view that everything has an element of consciousness?
  • https://qz.com/1184574/the-idea-that-everything-from-spoons-to-stones-are-conscious-is-gaining-academic-credibility/
    ("The idea that everything from spoons to stones are conscious is gaining academic credibility")

    Do scientists know what they are talking about? Is it credible that professional physicists and chemists misunderstand the essential nature of what they investigate all their professional lives? This is quite a bold proposal.

    Three broad categories of panpsychism are worth distinguishing: (1) pre-scientific animism, (2) property-dualist panpsychism, and (3) non-materialist physicalism.
    I explore (3), despite a deep-felt intuition that it can’t be true. In particular, I’m interested in a quantum-theoretic version of the “intrinsic nature” argument for panpsychism. Only (3) is potentially experimentally falsifiable.

    First, here is another question. Which is more mysterious: consciousness or matter and energy? Or are they equally ill-understood?
    A popular answer among scientists and laypeople alike is that consciousness is the enigma. For a start, consciousness is poorly defined. We don’t know why subjective experience (“what-it-feels-like”, qualia, “raw feels”, first-person facts) exists at all, i.e. why aren't we just p-zombies? Nor can materialist physicalism explain why consciousness is phenomenally bound in classically impossible ways (the combination problem); nor how consciousness could have the causal power e.g. to inspire discussions about its existence; nor the physical basis of its myriad varieties (the palette problem). Nothing resembling the periodic table of the elements exists for the teeming diversity of subjective experience. By contrast, matter and energy are normally reckoned well explained. Naïvely, at any rate, the properties of the physical world can be exhaustively described using the formalism of mathematical physics. The Standard Model has immense explanatory and predictive power. Our rigorous, quantitative, mathematically compressible, experimentally testable understanding of matter and energy lets us split the atom, go to the moon, design smart phones, and build the internet. Consciousness is an anomaly; but this anomalous status doesn’t call into question our understanding of the material universe.

    However, on this analysis we face a dilemma.
    On the one hand, if consciousness is not identical with matter and energy, then dualism is true. I won’t list all the problems with dualism here. They are legion. The problems infect property-dualism too. For physicists are adamant that physics is causally closed and (complications aside) complete. Any satisfactory theory of consciousness must explain how subjective experience is causally and functionally able e.g. to inspire this discussion about its properties without violating the causal closure of physics.

    Yet the other horn of the dilemma is equally sharp. If dualism is false, and consciousness in all its guises is (somehow) identical with states of matter and energy, then we don’t really understand matter and energy. Verbal placebos that invoke “complexity” or an unexplained “emergence” tend to obscure rather than illuminate the problem. All sorts of complex physical phenomena ranging from self-replicating DNA to the weather are weakly (and unexceptionably) emergent from the underlying physics. To investigate the natural world, humans conveniently divide reality into organisational “levels”. Science studies these levels with different tools and different methodologies. Yet they all supervene on the underlying physics as described by the Standard Model. The existence of irreducible “strong” emergence would be different. If “strong” emergence is real, then scientists don’t understand the basic stuff of the world that spawns such ontological novelty. Yet if “strong” emergence is a myth, i.e. if consciousness is a fundamental property of matter and energy as claimed by panpsychism, then scientists don’t understand the basic stuff of physical reality either.

    Possible solutions?

    One tradition, whose antecedents can be traced back via Grover Maxwell to Russell’s neutral monism and ultimately Schopenhauer, focuses on how natural science captures only the structural-relational properties of matter and energy. Science doesn’t describe their intrinsic properties. Perhaps see William Seager’s “The ‘Intrinsic Nature’ Argument for Panpsychism”: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~seager/intnat.pdf. Recall how Kant argued that we can know only phenomena, not the noumenal essence of the world. The nature of this essence of world, the Ding an sich, Kant claimed, will forever transcend our minds. Non-materialist physicalism turns Kant on his head. All that one ever directly knows or experiences is a tiny part of the noumenal essence of the physical world. Our minds disclose the essence of the physical. This essence is experiential: the intrinsic nature of the quantum fields that the formalism of QFT describes.

    Yes, a tall tale. Among contemporary academic philosophers, the best known advocate of non-materialist physicalism is Galen Strawson. Strawson calls his position “real materialism”, not “real idealism”. Such labelling is probably wise. We have at least two grounds for taking such an unintuitive conception of the nature of the physical seriously. The first is the acknowledged ignorance of materialist physicalism of the nature of the “fire” in the equations. The second is the conjunction of the properties of one’s mind with the principle of mediocrity. There is no reason to suppose that quantum fields inside and outside one’s skull differ in their essential nature, only organisationally. None of us is ontologically special.

    My view?
    I think our difficulties partly stem from an implicit perceptual naïve realism. If you believe that – when “awake” – we each have direct perceptual access to a shared, public, macroscopic world of chairs and tables and sunsets and particle accelerators, then we all enjoy a pre-theoretic handle on the nature of physical. This knowledge is conceptually prior to whatever physicists and chemists tell us about the underlying properties of matter and energy. If so, then the essence of the physical is manifestly non-experiential – regardless of whether physics reveals that quantum mechanics is fundamentally a theory of particles, fields, loops, superstrings, branes, wavefunctions, or anything else. By contrast, if inferential realism about perception is true, and all one ever directly accesses are the subjective contents of one’s own mind – including the subjectively classical world-simulation that one’s CNS is running – then an ontological revolution is a live option (cf. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”). As radical conservativism goes, such a shift in our scientific ontology would be very radical. The mathematical machinery of quantum field theory should be interpreted realistically and conservatively. But QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience.

    Intuitively, it’s an insane idea. I think the proposal may very well be wrong. Common sense is occasionally right. Yet non-materialist physicalism explains why we aren’t p-zombies. “P-zombies” would be unphysical. Only the physical is real. Non-materialist physicalism also solves the palette problem. The disparate values of qualia are encoded by the (conventionally infinite) solutions to the equations of QFT. Non-materialist physicalism also explains the causal efficacy of consciousness. Experience is the essence of the physical. Only the physical has causal efficacy. So all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. Consciousness per se isn’t evolutionarily “for” anything (cf. How does sentience benefit survival?). Unless non-psychotically bound, consciousness isn’t genetically adaptive.

    The thorniest challenge for non-materialist physicalism – but also the key to its experimental testability – is the phenomenal binding / combination problem first clearly articulated by American psychologist William James. Conclusive demonstration of a structural mismatch between any property of our minds and the CNS entails that physicalism of any kind is false. Naively, our nervous systems should at most be aggregates of Jamesian “mind-dust”.

    As normally posed, a background assumption of the phenomenal binding / combination problem is decohered neurons and classical physics. Classical physics is false. Why expect a false theory of the world to yield a true theory of consciousness? Instead, let’s here assume that quantum mechanics is complete: “dynamical collapse” modifications of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics are ugly and ad hoc. Most wavefunction monists are also materialists. Materialists face the Hard Problem of consciousness. By contrast, wavefunction monists who take panpsychism / non-materialst physicalism seriously face neither the Hard Problem nor the binding problem. Rather, we face the phenomenal unbinding problem – soluble IMO by an extension of the decoherence program to the CNS.

    This comment needs amplifying. Barring new physics, we have no good reason to believe the superposition principle of QM breaks down in the CNS or anywhere else. The superposition principle can’t be quarantined to microphysics: it infects everything (cf. Wigner's friend). Or rather, either the superposition principle is universally valid, or unitary-only quantum mechanics is false. The evidence of one’s own eyes leads to the conventional wisdom that superpositions are never experienced, only inferred. If perceptual naïve realism were true, this would be so. But perceptual naïve realism is false. Perceptual naïve realism leads to the problem of definite outcomes. The unitary-only QM version of the “intrinsic nature” argument for panpsychism says that only superpositions are ever experienced. Just don’t think of superposed live-and-dead cats. Instead of Schrödinger's cat, think of Schrödinger's neurons.

    Can QM really explain binding? Conventional neuroscanning reveals multiple hints of a structural match between our phenomenally-bound percepts and the microstructure of the CNS in the form of synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors. Hints – but no cigar. Mere synchrony is not binding. If temporally coarse-grained neuroscanning were really the last scientific word on the subject, then I’d agree with David Chalmers on the “structural mismatch” objection to non-materialist physicalism: some kind of dualism would be warranted. However, for reasons I won’t defend here, I predict – tentatively – that molecular matter-wave interferometry will disclose a perfect structural match between mind and brain, albeit a perfect structural match in Hilbert space rather than four-dimensional space-time. Superpositions are individual states; they aren’t classical aggregates. Whether panpsychism is true or false, it’s not collectively like anything, subjectively, to be a classical aggregate. By contrast, on the conjecture I explore, quadrillions of phenomenally-bound “cat states” allow each of us to simulate classicality – the robustly classical-looking world-simulation of one’s everyday experience.

    Strictly speaking, such a (hypothetical!) demonstration of such a perfect structural match won’t prove that non-materialist physicalism is true. Yet such a stunningly counterintuitive result – rather than the non-classical interference signature of psychotic “noise” that one might naïvely anticipate – would in practice be decisive.

    So in answer to your question: I don’t know whether panpsychism is true or false. My working hypothesis is that monistic physicalism is true, and quantum physics is a theory of physical consciousness. And if not, then dualism is unavoidable. But reality baffles me.

  • What if you don't like it in Heaven?
  • “When I was 4 years old ... I dreamt that I'd been eaten by a wolf, and to my great surprise I was in the wolf's stomach and not in heaven.”
    (Bertrand Russell)

    "In heaven, all the interesting people are missing."
    (Friedrich Nietzsche)

    Might you arrive at your final destination and discover Heaven isn’t all that the guidebook promised? Not everyone in Heaven is reportedly happy with its existing power structure. The full story behind the failed palace coup (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Heaven" target="_blank">War in Heaven and forcibly exiled angels has yet to emerge. Historically, the most common worry of mortal humans down on Earth doesn’t seem to be the lack of democratic accountability in Heaven, but boredom. What exactly will one do all day? Might worshiping God ever tend to pall?

    My own conceptual framework is of secular scientific rationalism – not to be confused with the materialist superstition with which scientific rationalism is often conflated. So I guess my own response to finding myself in Heaven would be surprise – whether good or bad, I can’t say. Maybe I’d lobby for change; but precedent suggests that pleas for reform wouldn’t be well-received.

    Despite this rather sceptical answer to your question, it’s worth adding that scientific rationalists can dream of heaven too, minus the theological trappings. Specifically, humans can potentially build a glorious transhuman future of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence. Future life can be based on genetically preprogrammed bliss for all sentient beings. The (genetically tweaked) lion and the wolf can lie down with the (genetically tweaked) lamb, just as the Bible foretells. Boredom, malaise and the other minor discontents are destined to be as physiologically impossible as the major horrors of Darwinian life. Transhumanism can’t promise Heaven. Yet the genome-editing revolution means that living happily ever after is best viewed as an engineering challenge rather than a theological mystery.
    Can anyone dislike being innately, superhumanly happy?

  • I've been a long-time avid reader of your Hedonistic Imperative, but recently discovered "Jhana" meditation states. Wonder if you are you aware of those blissful states? Why are the experiences of jhana so unknown?
  • My knowledge jhana meditation states is superficial and second-hand. Anecdotally, I’ve heard good reports (cf. “Jhana: The Spice Your Meditation Has Been Missing”); but that’s it. So why not urge meditation for everyone, together with the staples of optimum nutrition, regular aerobic exercise and good sleep discipline?

    Essentially, because meditation isn’t a panacea. Some practitioners feel blissful (cf. “Are ‘Bliss Bunnies’ Jhana Addicts?”); other meditators derive mixed results; a minority of melancholic depressives feel worse. Of course, an adept who derives positive results from any psychotherapeutic practice can always say that “failures” aren’t doing it right. This response evokes medical talk of “treatment-resistant” depressives who “fail to respond” to approved drug therapies. Alas, there isn’t evidence to date that meditation, including access to jhana meditation states, can reliably recalibrate the set-point of the hedonic treadmill. Buddhists, religious believers and secular rationalists alike can be depressives or hyperthymics; it’s a genetic lottery. More generally, the vast majority of sentient beings in the living world cannot benefit from meditation. Only biotechnology, not meditation or following the Noble Eightfold Path, can permanently phase out suffering across the tree of life.

    In short, anyone who personally suffers from stress or anxiety should consider meditation. If you find meditating helps you, fantastic: don’t stop! Collectively, however, if we’re totally serious about abolishing suffering, then we need to tackle the problem at its genetic source.

  • How can we best resolve the problem of definite outcomes in quantum mechanics?
  • How can the linearity of the Schrödinger equation, which describes the time evolution of the wavefunction of a physical system, be reconciled with the Born rule, which says that measurement of a physical system yields a definite but non-deterministic result – with a probability given by the modulus squared of the wavefunction? All the options are desperately implausible (cf. “Decoherence and definite outcomes”: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1208.0904.pdf). At least one exceedingly "obvious" presupposition or background assumption that we are making must be wrong.

    But which one(s)?

    On “philosophical” as well as technical grounds, I take seriously wavefunction monism (cf. Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?). Everettians attempt to derive rather than postulate the Born rule and suppose there exist a multitude of decohered “branches” of the universal wavefunction where you observe dead cats as well as a multitude of decohered branches where you observe live cats. Quite so. Yet the problem of definite outcomes isn’t why you experience one result rather than another result; it’s why you ever experience any definite outcome at all.

    Well, maybe you don’t…

    On this conjecture, the biological mind reading this text consists of nothing but "cat states". Only the universal validity of the superposition principle of QM allows you to undergo the experience of a definite classical outcome, for example the subjective experience of a live cat, or the experience of a determinate pointer-reading of a classical-looking experimental apparatus. The macroscopic world-simulation run by your CNS consists of superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors – “cat states” subjectively experienced as an external classical world described by an approximation of Newtonian physics. The vehicle of your world-simulation is quantum-coherent; the subjective content is decohered and robustly classical. “Outcomes”, as classically perceived, are fitness-enhancing hallucinations peculiar to biological minds. Only neuronal superpositions masquerading as classical definite outcomes are ever experienced. Unitarity is conserved. You’re a quantum mind simulating a classical world. Critically, this conjecture is experimentally falsifiable. Probing the neuronal vehicle of your phenomenal world-simulation with tomorrow's molecular matter-wave interferometry will yield neither random quantum “noise” nor some collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, but instead the nonclassical interference signature of a perfect structural match.

    On the face of it, this proposal is hopeless: Quantum decoherence.

    If – fancifully – biological minds functioned in isolation at temperatures near absolute zero, then yes, perhaps we might fantasise about superpositions of neuronal feature-processors supporting subjectively well-behaved macroscopic world-simulations. The phenomenal binding problem of neuroscience and problem of definite outcomes in QM are solved at one fell swoop. Eureka. Unfortunately, the CNS is too hot – by several hundred degrees. Diverse sources of decoherence exist in the CNS. Timescales of thermally-induced decoherence alone suffice to illustrate how neuronal “cat states" – i.e. superpositions of distributed feature-processors – can't credibly underpin our experience of definite outcomes and phenomenally bound classical pointer-readings. Assuming the unitary-only dynamics, the progressive scrambling of phase angles of the components of individual neuronal superpositions must play out over a timescale of femtoseconds or less. Phase coherence is (effectively) irreversibly lost to the extraneural environment. No selection mechanism exists to sculpt fleeting and psychotic quantum “noise” into the law-governed phenomenal world of your everyday waking experience. To borrow the "junkyard tornado" analogy, the chances of quadrillions of coherent neuronal superpositions in your CNS being sculpted into your classical world-simulation are akin to “the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747." Sure, natural selection operating on evolutionary timescales can throw up (what would otherwise be) insanely improbable outcomes. Darwinian selection pressure operates over thousands and millions of years – not femtoseconds(!).

    Indeed. Yet just suppose a ridiculously powerful selection mechanism did play out, unremittingly, inside your skull over precisely these fine-grained timescales – a selection mechanism that sculpts coherent neuronal superpositions into your subjectively classical world-simulation with its subjectively definite observations.

    Well, such a selection mechanism exists. Wojciech Zurek's “Quantum Darwinism” (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1412.5206.pdf) – essentially the decoherence program in no-collapse QM – fits both the role and the timeframe. Quantum Darwinism explains the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality in the mind-independent world via a Darwinian selection mechanism. “Darwinian” in this context is no Chopra-esque poetic metaphor. See John Campbell’s “Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process”: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf. Replication, variations amongst the copies, and selective survival of the copies in accordance with their variations – it’s the real deal, minus the sex.

    Now consider skull-bound biological minds. Perceptual direct realism is scientifically untenable. So how can genetic fitness-relevant patterns in your extra-cranial reality be tracked and dynamically simulated by your CNS to facilitate adaptive behaviour? Here let’s pass over the can of worms opened by the factorisation problem (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf) – the decomposition of the universe into subsystems – and pose a simple question. What happens when the insanely brutal selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism plays out inside your head?

    Naively, what emerges are robustly classical, decohered, membrane-bound neurons, continually monitored by an "environment" of cerebrospinal fluid, neuroglia and peripheral nerve inputs. Sure enough, scanning the CNS at a coarse-grained temporal resolution of milliseconds discloses hints of a perfect structural match between your phenomenal world-simulation (i.e. "perception", definite “observations”) and the neuronal structure of your brain – and thus, ultimately, the formalism of QFT. Over extended millisecond timescales, gross shadows of phenomenal mind can be modelled via classically parallel connectionist neuroscience and its learning algorithms. However, mere synchronous activation of decohered neuronal feature-processors (edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons etc) can’t generate your experience of a feature-bound phenomenal cat or a determinate experimental pointer-reading – a classical "definite outcome” – on pain of unphysical “strong” emergence. Phenomenal binding is hugely fitness-enhancing: it’s what consciousness is functionally “for”. On the African savannah, notional micro-experiential zombies composed of classical “mind-dust” would rapidly starve or get eaten. Yet local and global phenomenal binding is classically impossible for decohered neurons. The ostensible absence of a perfect structural match between phenomenal mind and the microstructure of the CNS drives scientifically literate philosophers like David Chalmers to dualism.

    Let’s stick to monistic physicalism. A “Schrödinger’s neurons” proposal sounds desperate. Yet the potential selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism is generic – i.e. explanatory in Darwin's sense, not Mendel's – whether applied inside or outside your skull. Quantum Darwinists typically focus on the ability of e.g. quantum dots and experimental pointer-readings to make copies of themselves and produce descendants (cf. https://phys.org/news/2010-05-evidence-quantum-darwinism-dots.html: “New evidence for quantum Darwinism found in quantum dots”). Likewise, the selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism exerted in the CNS creates a good approximation of robustly quasi-classical neurons when you’re dreamlessly sleep. And when you’re “awake”? I don’t know. But alluding to the ultra-short lifetimes of neuronal superpositions in the CNS isn't by itself enough to dismiss the conjecture that neuronal "cats states" solve the binding problem in neuroscience and the problem of definite outcomes in QM. The conjecture needs to be falsified experimentally via interferometry.

  • What is something everybody likes?
  • Everyone likes activation of our ultimate "hedonic hotspot" in the ventral pallidum (cf. "Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being": https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3274778/). Such consensus is rare. So should policy makers allow all sentient beings to be happy? After all, "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" (cf. Constitution of WHO: principles).

    Life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of bliss may be more credible than the commitment to complete well-being as enshrined in the World Health Organization constitution “Complete” well-being is an extraordinarily ambitious goal, both from a technical and sociological perspective. But biotechnology and CRISPR genome-editing promise to turn “good health for all” from an empty slogan into a rational policy option.

  • Is the mind made of material substance, if so how is consciousness possible?
  • Minds aren’t made up of material substance. What are often thought as material substances, for example phenomenal chairs, tables, rocks, and mountains, are autobiographical properties of the skull-bound world-simulation that your mind is running. When you are awake, these phenomenal properties tend to track genetic fitness-relevant features of your local environment.

    So how do the world’s fundamental fermionic and bosonic fields turn water into wine, so to speak, and create an ontology of first-person experience from (presumably) insentient matter and energy?

    Materialists sometimes talk of “emergence”. Thus the first spark of consciousness “emerges” from a world devoid of first-person experience in the late pre-Cambrian. Yet scientists would bridle if told by religious believers that, say, souls “emerge” above a given threshold of neural complexity. How? Why? What philosophers call “weak” emergence, e.g. the properties of liquid water from H2O molecules, is harmless; “strong” emergence is no better than magic. Physicalists should speak of “emergent phenomena” only if we can show in principle how to perform the derivation from bedrock quantum reality.

    Consciousness can’t be so derived. So maybe consciousness doesn’t “emerge”. The so-called Hard Problem of consciousness arises only if we assume that quantum field theory describes fields of insentience rather than sentience. This background assumption is intuitively obvious. Surely don’t physicists and chemists understand the nature of a quantum field? Why else read these page-turners? The essence of the physical can’t be subjective experience!

    Yet the track-record of human intuition isn’t stellar. Critically, one can't consistently maintain that 1) we have no idea about what “breathes fire into the equations” and (2) the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential. And actually, we do have a clue to the intrinsic nature of the physical in the guise of the tiny part of the “fire” in the equations that one instantiates, i.e. one’s own mind.
    Rephrased: are we not just organisationally different but also ontologically special?

  • What are the main points of disagreement between Brian Tomasik and David Pearce?
  • Thomas Kuhn is no longer as fashionable as he was in the late twentieth century (cf. The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories). Many critics regard talk of incommensurable paradigms and mutually unintelligible conceptual schemes, e.g. classical versus quantum physics, as exaggerated (cf. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” by Donald Davidson:
    https://www2.southeastern.edu/Academics/Faculty/jbell/conceptualscheme.pdf).

    I’d beg to differ.
    Alas, Brian Tomasik and I often talk past each other. We ought to share the same conceptual scheme because, in the main, we speak the same language. For instance, we are both self-identified effective altruists (EAs) who favour a suffering-focused ethics embracing both human and nonhuman animals. Yet I am a consciousness realist. Brian is a consciousness anti-realist. In 2016, I reluctantly had to decline an invitation to co-author a paper critiquing Brian’s position on consciousness because I wasn’t confident that I understand it well enough to do it justice.
    See Consciousness Realism by Magnus Vinding;
    and Brian’s response:
    http://reducing-suffering.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/a-reply-to-magnus-vinding-on.html">A reply to Magnus Vinding on consciousness, ethics, and future suffering by Brian Tomasik.

    I do try to critique eliminativist materialism in general: Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies? Or do they misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness?
    But once again, I worry that I may be misrepresenting a position I find almost unintelligible.

    What else? Well, I could explore everything from our respective positions on meta-ethics to the environmental impact of veganism to the phenomenal binding problem (cf. The Unity of Consciousness) to our differing focus on biological versus (hypothetical) digital sentience (cf. Why I Don't Focus on the Hedonistic Imperative | Essays on Reducing Suffering by Brian Tomasik). Yet I’m not sure how clearly to set out our (dis)agreements except against a backdrop of consciousness realism. So (for now) I’m stuck.

  • Can you prove others’ consciousness?
  • “Prove”, no. Or at least, not yet. “Mind-melding” via reversible thalamic bridges should solve the sceptical Problem of Other Minds, but the technical challenges are formidable (cf. Would it be theoretically possible to experience the conscious experience of another being?).

    Until then, transcending solipsism-of-the-here-and-now is never rational. Illusory escape from the here-and-now always involves a non-rational leap of Santayana’s “blind animal faith”. And such faith is often misplaced, even if the scientific world-picture is essentially correct. Thus the bodies you encounter when dreaming are zombies. Disconcertingly, the bodies you experience when awake are zombies too. Such phantoms of the mind are the avatars of hypothetical sentient beings in the inferred wider world. Your CNS is running a world-simulation, not “perceiving” its surroundings, i.e. the meninges and interior surface of a skull. Skull-bound minds can’t commune with an extra-cranial environment. If science is true, then perceptual realism is false.

    What about this hypothetical external world and its hypothetical inhabitants? Solipsists stick to the available evidence. However, inferential realism about an external world has a predictive and explanatory power that solipsism lacks. Scientific rationalists are prone to believe that materialism is the most compelling conceptual framework to explain the mind-independent world and our place in the great scheme of things – despite the inconsistency of this conceptual framework with the empirical evidence, i.e. one’s own subjective experience. For now, let’s set this unfortunate anomaly aside, i.e. the Hard Problem of consciousness. Provisionally, let’s assume at least the formal trappings of the scientific package – inferential realism about perception, the sovereignty of physics, the ontological unity of science, and evolution via natural selection as described by the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. What is the nature of hypothetical beings beyond one’s transcendental skull? Might these hypothetical organisms be zombies, like their insentient avatars and namesakes in one’s world-simulation?

    Yes. On the orthodox ontology of materialist metaphysics, such creatures ought to be zombies too. The Standard Model in physics exhaustively catalogues the particle zoo. Quantum field theory (QFT) unifies the forces of Nature. All the properties of the physical world as conceived by mainstream science can, in principle, be derived from the Standard Model plus gravity. If so, then sentience is physically impossible. Thus according to radical eliminativist materialism, your sentience is an illusion. Anomalies should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Get rid of your anomalous first-person experience, then science will be complete. We are all zombies, to quote Daniel Dennett.

    Well, maybe Dan is a zombie, but sad to say, I’m not. Generalisation from a single instance to an uncounted multitude is always going to be hazardous. I nonetheless suspect that you and zillions of other biological nervous systems aren’t zombies either. However, suspicion alone isn’t enough. Ideally, the conjecture that one is not alone in a multiverse of zombies needs to be put on a sounder theoretical footing than deeply felt intuition and a tenuous argument from analogy. Harmonising theory and evidence means revising the ontology of our scientific conceptual scheme.

    But how?
    One move to counter the zombie menace is property-dualist panpsychism. According to panpsychism, the discipline of physics, and the special sciences that physics spawns, is radically incomplete. Consciousness is just as fundamental to the universe as the physical properties with which it is inexplicably associated.

    Problem solved?
    Sadly, no. Panpsychism hints at a possible solution, but panpsychism is no panacea. For if textbook neuroscience is true, and if the CNS is composed of billions of decohered and membrane-bound neurons, then the hypothetical inhabitants of the external world should at most be micro-experiential zombies. Earth should be populated by micro-experiential zombies even if property-dualist panpsychism is true. The synchronous activation of distributed neuronal feature-processors revealed by neuroscanning and microelectrode studies hints at a structural match between mind and matter. But no more. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible for a pack of discrete nerve cells on pain of magical “strong” emergence. Analogously, a believer in the sentience of China has not shown that China is a mega-subject of experience simply by alluding to the consciousness of skull-bound Chinese minds and their reciprocal communication (cf. China brain). On the face of it, a pack of membrane-bound neurons in the CNS is no different. The classical impossibility of phenomenal binding entails the impossibility of phenomenal minds, too, regardless of the sentience or otherwise of the basic stuff of the world. Or rather, phenomenal minds would be impossible if consciousness were classical.

    Solipsism beckons?
    Not yet.
    All the options are crazy. IMO, one methodological rule of thumb is worth preserving. If your crazy theory doesn’t yield any novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions to distinguish it from all the other crazy theories, then it’s almost certainly no good.

    I explore the quantum-theoretic version of the “intrinsic properties” argument for non-materialist physicalism (cf. William Seager’s The ‘Intrinsic Nature’ Argument for Panpsychism). Unlike property-dualist panpsychism, non-materialst physicalism is monist. All and only physical properties are real. Science describes the structural-relational properties of the physical universe, whereas experience discloses the essence of the physical, the “fire” in the equations of QFT. The binding problem, the problem of causal efficacy, and the palette problem are all potentially solved. The conjecture is also falsifiable via interferometry (cf. Schrödinger’s neurons). As normally framed, the binding / combination problem for physicalism presupposes what should instead be derived, i.e. an approximation of decohered and dynamically stable classical objects, including decohered and dynamically stable classical neurons in the CNS. In a nutshell, you and your classical-seeming world-simulation are what quadrillions of individual superpositions (“cat states”) of a quantum mind feel like from the inside. The decoherence program of unitary-only QM yields a selection mechanism more powerful and all-encompassing than Darwin's natural selection. Only the fact that the superposition principle of QM never breaks down lets a warm, wet CNS phenomenally simulate a classical world where it does. If quantum theory is complete, then googols of you exist, and likewise googols of our sentient fellow humans and non-human animal cousins, and indeed googols of sentient extraterrestrials too, all embedded in the universal wavefunction of post-Everett QM.

    This is quite a lot to swallow. “Science is nothing but trained and organised common sense”, said Thomas Huxley; and this tall tale is apt to raise eyebrows. Not everyone is convinced that QFT and phase coherence has anything to do with consciousness.
    I’m not convinced either.
    But if swallowed and digested, are we out of the woods?
    Not yet, not remotely!
    Another daunting challenge faced by rationalists is the inability of science to naturalise semantic meaning and reference. How can one physical state of the world notionally be “about” another physical state? In the context of your question, how can one conscious mind intelligibly think about, and successfully refer to, another conscious mind? “Magical” reference isn’t consistent with physical science. So how can you speak meaningfully of phenomena that transcend your empirical world-simulation?

    What’s troubling is that a seemingly naturalistic story can be told about how the simulacra of “magical” reference could have arisen in a society of sophisticated cognitive agents within a universe devoid of semantic properties (cf. The Symbol Grounding Problem). Naively, such an account of semantic content sounds ideal. Meaning naturalised at last! The snag is that such a naturalistic story implicitly presupposes what it denies, i.e. “magical” semantic realism. I don’t have an adequate answer.

    Despite all these epistemological and semantic worries, my credo is unchanged. Reality supports countless skull-bound minds and their egocentric world-simulations. Digital computers are zombies. Biological minds are sentient. Thanks to evolution via natural selection, sentient beings tend to treat each other atrociously. Darwinian life is sentient malware. Let’s use biotechnology to get rid of suffering throughout the living world – and ensure all future minds are blissfully happy.

  • What causes human suffering?
  • Asking the cause of human suffering may one day read as jarringly as asking the cause of Aryan suffering. What is terrible is suffering, regardless of race or species.
    Why does any suffering exist?

    One partial but shallow answer is that suffering helped our genes leave more copies of themselves in the ancestral environment of adaptation: what biologists call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA. Natural selection didn’t “design” biological minds to be content, or least not to stay content. Suffering, malaise and discontent have been genetically adaptive. Any would-be ancestors who were perpetually happy, or predisposed to count their blessings, tended not to maximise their inclusive fitness in comparison to greedy and discontented adulterous egotists. By the same token, anyone born with congenital analgesia didn’t live long to enjoy it.

    In a deeper sense, we don’t understand why suffering exists, or indeed why any kind of subjective experience exists. Why aren’t we p-zombies? Compare how silicon robots can implement the functional role of nociception and biological emotions while lacking what organic minds experience as their characteristic “raw feels”.

    [Philosophers call the raw feels “qualia”. Here we shall call them “raw feels”. Using a fancy term like “qualia” for familiar experiences lends the semblance of credibility to an otherwise crazy radical eliminativism about consciousness.]

    More concretely, consider any kind of negative experience that you might think of as – sometimes – instrumentally valuable. No known function of sentient beings cannot be performed, efficiently or otherwise, by an insentient information processor (cf. the Church–Turing thesis - Wikipedia). Thus the subjective experience of suffering isn’t deeply meaningful, or even computationally indispensable. Whether or not it’s functionally incidental, suffering is just a cruel implementation detail of organic robots (cf. The solution to suffering is meaning, not eradication).

    This answer could easily turn into a philosophical disquisition on the nature of consciousness. The existence, causal efficacy, diverse palette and classically impossible phenomenal binding of consciousness are indeed an unsolved mystery of materialist metaphysics. My own ideas here are idiosyncratic, so feel free to skip or skim. In short, there is no Hard Problem of consciousness for non-materialist physicalism. Suffering exists in biological minds because we are capable of classically impossible local and global phenomenal binding. Without binding, you couldn’t suffer. A pack of 86 billion membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of experience would just be a micro-experiential zombie, as you are while dreamlessly asleep. Binding is classically inexplicable. However, classical physics is false; and we’ve no grounds for supposing a false theory will yield a true account of binding (cf. Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose? Is it even necessary for biological systems to work?).

    Mercifully, it’s not necessary for science to understand – in any deep sense of “understand” – why phenomenally bound and subjectively unpleasant experience exists in order to end it for ever in our forward lightcone. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution means that abolitionists merely need to know the necessary and sufficient neurological conditions for unpleasant experience. After we have deciphered these neurological conditions, we can genetically eliminate them. Subsequently, all forms of misery and malaise, and indeed any experience below “hedonic zero”, can be made physically impossible because their molecular signatures will be absent. The era of suffering will be over.

    Thus consider pain and our core emotions (anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, anxiety, etc). Evolutionary psychologists have identified the role of each of our core emotions in the ancestral environment of adaptation. Raw feels and functional roles are doubly dissociable. So intelligent moral agents should ask regarding each core emotion:

    (1) Do we want to conserve its functional role, or any conceivable extension or modification of its functional role?
    If so, then
    (2) Do we do want to conserve the typical raw feels with which that functional role is currently associated in biological organisms?

    Take jealousy. A predisposition to personal and sexual jealousy has hitherto typically been fitness-enhancing. Fondly imagining the pleasure that one’s neighbour derives from having sex with one’s wife may speak highly of one’s inner Buddha nature, but such rare generosity of spirit has been genetically maladaptive. Jealousy is transiently eliminable, both functionally and subjectively, with e.g. short-acting empathetic euphoriants like MDMA (cf. Ecstasy: Utopian Pharmacology). In future, we can eliminate jealousy for good: function and experience alike. Likewise envy. Likewise depressive illness. Likewise sub-clinical depression and “normal” bad moods. The spectrum of behaviour today associated with low mood seems to be an individual adaptation to group living. See the Rank theory of depression. Non-social animals apparently don’t get depressed; they suffer in other ways. Perhaps we may want to conserve, or “offload” to AI, the functional role of depressive realism. Either way, the ugly raw feels of depression can go.

    This plea for abolition isn’t just overblown rhetoric. CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene-editing of alleles modulating both hedonic tone and hedonic set-points is already feasible, in principle, for humans as well as so-called "animal models". And are we really ethically entitled to bring more suffering into the world? (cf. anti-natalism) If so, then which versions of the three genes below would you like for your future children?

    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), Is Pessimism Genetic? Research Shows Your Outlook Might Be Cloudy By Genetic Design (ADA2b deletion variant). Preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) and counselling for all prospective parents, and CRISPR gene-editing for existing humans, can help us claw our way out of the Darwinian abyss. CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives can do the same for sexually reproducing free-living sentient nonhumans: Genetically designing a happy biosphere. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses should simply be shut and outlawed. In practice, the transition to a civilised human diet will depend on the commercialisation of cultured meat (cf. Would you eat "clean meat"?).

    In contrast to jealousy or low mood, the noxious stimuli-processing role of nociception is functionally vital, and likely to remain so: Do you believe physical pain could be eliminated as you profess psychological suffering will cease to exist in sentient beings? Likewise, some sort of functional role for anxiety must be retained for the foreseeable future. On the African savannah, neurotic mothers who chronically worried about their kids falling prey to lions left more copies of their genes than chilled moms and happy-go-lucky hedonists. Looking further ahead, the capacity functionally to worry about e.g. the long-term future of sentience within our cosmological horizon (etc) is worth conserving, but shouldn’t cause us sleepless nights.

    All this talk of reduction and abolition might evoke an impoverished range of emotion. Doesn't getting rid of suffering run the risk of reducing neurodiversity? Maybe. The prospect of lifelong orgasmic bliss beyond the bounds of normal human experience doesn’t personally horrify me as much as some critics; but in reality, our palette of emotions can be vastly expanded via biotech. CRISPR genome-editing and the reproductive revolution of designer babies allow the creation of an unimaginable richness and exquisite depth of positive emotions. Such “exotic” emotions were previously inaccessible either because they were genetically maladaptive, or because access depended on crossing “fitness gaps” forbidden by natural selection. Natural selection has no foresight.

    Complications?
    Sure, tons. Where does one begin? Any critic who dwells on the potential risks, potential financial costs, and the multiple issues of democratic control and accountability of implementing practical abolitionist bioethics is on firm ground. When planning for the future, a good rule of thumb is to assume that almost anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. So let’s research and act accordingly.

    Here, however, I’ve wanted to focus on the big picture. What should be our long-term goal for the biosphere: conservation biology or compassionate biology? The past 540 million years of Darwinian life have seen obscene cruelty and suffering. CRISPR tools for gene knockout, mutagenesis and activation/repression together with our imminent mastery of the hedonic treadmill are revolutionary technologies. We are living in the last century in which suffering is technically inevitable. If the hedonic range of Darwinian life has been, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10, then the hedonic range to navigate post-Darwinian life can be, say, +70 to +100.
    Transhuman life can potentially be glorious.

    In the meantime, moral decency calls for an antispeciesist revolution. A biology of superhappiness shouldn’t be the prerogative of one privileged species or ethnic group, but should be enjoyed by all sentient beings, i.e. “us” in the most inclusive sense of the term.

    Barring post-cryonic reanimation, I doubt any twenty-first century humans will live to see universal happiness.
    Yet I believe it’s a future worth striving for.

  • Do you believe that suffering is worthwhile?
  • “When you compare the sorrows of real life to the pleasures of the imaginary one, you will never want to live again, only to dream forever.”
    (Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo)
    Imagine we encounter an advanced civilisation that has replaced the biology of suffering with an information-signaling system of gradients of bliss. If you believe that suffering is worthwhile, then what arguments would you use to persuade them to reintroduce agony, despair and other miseries of their ancestors? Would you urge the return of involuntary suffering? Or just an à la carte menu of unpleasant experience?

    Bioconservatives might respond that such a thought-experiment is pointless. Maybe it’s technically feasible to get rid of suffering in favour of information-sensitive gradients of bliss, smart prostheses, and the like. Such a techno-utopia would be a fool’s paradise, resting on a false happiness. The only way truly to appreciate the good things in life is also to go though the bad (cf. If we were always happy, would we know what happiness is?).

    I disagree. Perhaps compare the lives of chronic depressives today. Some severe depressives are permanently sunk in lethargy, learned helplessness and behavioural despair. The lives of other depressed people are shaped, weakly and fitfully at least, by information-sensitive gradients of misery. Either way, to propose that chronic depressives don’t truly recognise the awfulness of suffering because of their personal ignorance of the alternative would be cruel. Tragically, the evidence suggests otherwise. Almost a million people world-wide take their own lives each year. Many more try and fail. Or consider the plight of factory-farmed nonhuman animals. Unless debeaked, declawed, tail-docked, castrated (etc), our victims tend in their desperation to mutilate themselves and each other. We are kidding ourselves if we suppose they aren’t suffering because they don’t know any better.
    So are chronically unhappy lives worthless?
    If you are a brain-in-a-vat, yes.

    But if you are an embodied skull-bound human mind, no – or at least, not necessarily. Chronically unhappy people can lead valuable lives – perhaps hugely valuable lives – if they help mitigate and prevent greater suffering in sentient beings elsewhere. For instance, whether happy or sad, effective altruists aim systematically to maximise the good they do in the world.

    Looking further ahead, the advanced civilisation that I postulated above could one day be our civilisation. Today, talk of reprogramming the biosphere to create life based on gradients of bliss sounds fantastical. Yet drawing up utopian-seeming blueprints isn’t futile. Only when we understand what’s theoretically feasible with CRISPR genome-editing can we have an informed bioethical debate, as a society, about whether to conserve or retire the biology of suffering. We may judge that other information-signaling systems are ethically preferable.

    I’m sceptical that I’ll live long enough to see the biohappiness revolution unfold. Yet complete mastery of our reward circuitry will be a game-changer. Post-Darwinian life will be sublime.
    Will 540+ million years of pain and misery to get there have been worthwhile?
    Our successors will think so.

  • If we were always happy, would we know what happiness is?
  • If we were always miserable, would we know what misery is?

    People who spend essentially their whole life either above or below “hedonic zero” don’t have problems grasping the nature of happiness or misery. Instead, they struggle to conceptualise the opposite syndrome, i.e. a life spent either entirely in the kingdom of pleasure or entirely in the kingdom of pain. Thus chronic depressives may be unable to imagine happiness, or in severe cases, even what the word “happiness” means. To the victim of chronic depression, “happiness” is just the end of suffering. We wouldn’t tell lifelong depressives that they can’t really be suffering because they can’t contrast their wretched state with episodes of happiness.

    On a brighter note, low mood will shortly disappear from the biosphere. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution makes technically feasible what would otherwise be a pipedream: the creation of a “hyperthymic” civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss. Our transhuman successors will find life self-intimatingly wonderful. Our genetically enhanced descendants will know they are superhappy, i.e. happy in ways beyond the bounds of human experience.

    Will posthumans have any insight into the nature of experience below “hedonic zero”?
    I’m sceptical: Darwinian life is best forgotten.

  • What is your opinion on quantum immortality?
  • Perhaps compare quantum insomnia. There exist Everett “branches” in which you haven’t slept for ten days. And the amplitude of the part of the universal wavefunction where you find yourself dreamlessly asleep is zero. Yet when you go to bed tonight, you shouldn’t imagine that you’ll never fall asleep again. Vastly more versions of “you” wake up refreshed next morning.

    I’ve scarequoted “you” here because discussions of Everett and personal identity often presuppose something akin to enduring metaphysical egos, albeit egos that prolifically decohere (“split”). Talk of “quantum immortality” encourages this misconception. But natural language and its temporally coarse-grained notion of personal identity is metaphysically hopeless. Strictly speaking, carving Nature at the joints entails a conception of personal identity that is insanely “thin”.

    How thin?
    The answer depends on our theory of consciousness and phenomenal binding.
    Most wavefunction monists are “materialist” physicalists. Materialists face the insoluble Hard Problem of consciousness.
    I investigate non-materialist physicalism. If true, then the effective lifetime of individual neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) in the warm wet CNS is femtoseconds or less.
    As they say, life is short.

  • Should we be concerned about the welfare of insects?
  • Would you step to one side to avoid treading on an insect? Would you want to associate with someone who deliberately trod on insects? If you saw a desiccated worm on the tarmac, would you rescue the struggling creature by placing her back on the wayside? Even if you’re not a utilitarian and care about the well-being only of your own ethnic group or species, perhaps recall Kant: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

    Consider the mind of a bee (cf. What Is It Like to Be a Bee?). The mind of a bee is a miniature island-universe. The cephalic ganglion of a bee runs a cross-modally matched world-simulation in almost real time. Bees use language to communicate fitness-relevant features of their simulated local environment to the miniature world-simulations of their hive-mates (cf. Waggle dance). Critically, bees have a pleasure-pain axis. They undergo distress if threatened or harmed by noxious stimuli. Conversely, bees can enjoy life. Bees like good food, liquid refreshment and euphoriant drugs (cf. Bees Get a Buzz From Cocaine). And bees are not unique among insects. (cf. Flies enjoy sex and will resort to alcohol if they can't get it). Ants, for instance, enjoy opioids just like their human counterparts (cf. Addict Ants Show That Insects Can Get Hooked on Drugs, Too). Insects can experience tolerance, dependence and withdrawal reactions from using abusable drugs.
    In short, insects have interests.

    So should we all become Jains?
    (cf. What is High-tech Jainism?)
    Not exactly.
    But the biotech revolution of CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives means that the entire biosphere is now programmable. Later this century and beyond, the level of suffering will be an adjustable parameter. Consideration for the well-being of humble life-forms is good preparation for a world of posthuman superintelligence where humans are as simple-minded as bugs seem to us. Mature sentience politics will entail guaranteeing the well-being of all creatures, great and small. In other words, post-Darwinian life.

  • Is a low-IQ brain essentially a low-quality brain?
  • “People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.”
    (Stephen Hawking)
    No. “IQ tests” are junk science. IQ tests crudely measure the “autistic” component of general intelligence. But “g” is a statistical artifact of our culture-bound IQ tests. Treating general intelligence as some kind of innate scalar brain force is naïve. Indeed, sceptics may argue that “high IQ” is a sex-linked genetic disorder associated with impaired introspection, mind-reading deficits, and reduced reproductive fitness. Not least, mind-blind IQ tests lack ecological validity. Hitler called IQ-testing a “Jewish science”, though this wasn't why the Nazis attempted to exterminate the ethnic group recording the highest IQ scores and highest prevalence of Asperger's; Jewish population sizes still haven’t recovered.

    Despite frequent deficits in social cognition, individuals with an abnormally high autistic component of general intelligence can still hold down a job in modern society (cf. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers). For instance, overwhelmingly male specialist niches such as string theory are typically associated with IQ scores of 160 plus. High IQ/AQ males also tend to dominate politics, the military, business, finance, and academia. Sometimes such worldly “success” is claimed by IQ boosters independently to validate “IQ testing” as a measure of full-spectrum general intelligence. Compare how the extreme male brain theory of autism spectrum disorder predicts that competitive, testosterone-driven, high-IQ/AQ men will “succeed” by such crass measures of excellence rather than, say, hyper-empathetic, low-testosterone women whose low-AQ cognitive style favours co-operative problem-solving (cf. Empathizing–systemizing theory).

  • Does quantum mechanics really have something to do with consciousness, or as is sometimes asserted, does this idea belong in the category of “quantum woo”?
  • Is a false theory of the world, i.e. classical physics, likely to yield a true theory of consciousness? Maybe, but perhaps the real problem is “classical woo”. To the best of our knowledge, quantum theory is formally complete. Therefore, our goal should be to derive the properties of our conscious minds from the underlying physics, just as physicists attempt to derive the emergence of quasi-classicality via the decoherence program. If a derivation turns out to be impossible, even in principle, then dualism is true – as philosopher David Chalmers has long argued (cf. Why are there physicists who explore the link between quantum mechanics and consciousness when there is none?).

    Note that the question of whether the properties of minds are derivable from the formalism of QM isn’t synonymous with the question of whether consciousness (or anything else) “collapses the wavefunction”.

    What will an adequate scientific theory of consciousness entail?
    At a minimum, any hypothesis should be consistent with the empirical evidence (cf. The Consciousness Deniers, by Galen Strawson). In addition, the hypothesis should offer novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics agree will distinguish the hypothesis from alternatives.
    Substantively, the hypothesis should:
    (1) explain why we aren’t p-zombies,
    (2) explain the rich diversity of conscious experience,
    (3) explain the causal-functional power of consciousness to e.g. discuss its own existence,
    (4) solve the phenomenal binding / combination problem, i.e. why aren't we just billions of membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of experience?

    My tentative view?
    Far-fetched, at least to anyone who understands decoherence:
    What is quantum mind?

  • How does sentience benefit survival and why is it developed?
  • Sentience per se is no more adaptive than insentience. What does make sentience fitness-enhancing is (non-psychotic) phenomenal binding. If “materialist” physicalism is true, then we don’t understand how phenomenal binding is possible in a pack of effectively classical neurons.

    Consider Oog the Caveman. Oog’s ability to pass on his genes depends on learning about his local extracranial environment. Naturally, Oog is a naïve realist about perception. Naïve realism is a fitness-enhancing delusion. Oog can’t access the external world directly. So his CNS must phenomenally simulate fitness-relevant features of mind-independent reality on the basis of sparse peripheral inputs. If Oog’s skull-bound brain consisted of billions of membrane-bound neuronal “pixels” of experience, then his survival prospects against a hungry pack of sabre-toothed tigers would be poor – no better than if his brain consisted of membrane-bound insentient neurons. Instead, Oog runs a unified, phenomenally bound, cross-modally matched world-simulation. Oog’s phenomenal world-simulation features his dynamic body-image, advancing sabre-toothed tigers, his nearby cave, and much more. Real-time phenomenal world-simulation is an astonishing computational achievement. Such a fitness-enhancing feat of computation is all the more astonishing because if our ordinary neuroscientific understanding of CNS neurons as decohered and effectively classical objects is correct, then both local and global phenomenal binding should be impossible. Oog should either be a zombie or a micro-experiential zombie.

    Responses to the binding problem range from invoking “strong” emergence to Chalmersian dualism to quantum mind.
    Can we conceive of any functional role(s) for sentience are not parasitic on phenomenal binding?
    I can think of only one.

    Uniquely, states of the pleasure-pain axis have a built-in proto-functionality: the seed of approach-avoidance behaviour. Thus even the smallest, simplest, faintest micro-pain is intrinsically aversive and subjectively disvaluable, quite irrespective of the sophisticated ways that negative emotion has been phenomenally bound and “encephalised” in complex nervous systems via evolution by natural selection. Even unicellular organisms can benefit from this functional role. By contrast, no bits and bytes of a programmable digital computer or insentient silicon robot are intrinsically (dis)valuable, regardless of their role encoding its utility function. For what it’s worth, I think the pleasure-pain axis holds the key to the future of life in the universe. But that’s another story…

  • 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
    (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poincar%C3%A9_recurrence_theorem)
    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:
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/9411193v2.pdf
    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": http://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082v1.pdf.

  • What would you do if someone attempted to rescue a prey from its predator?
  • Applaud and assist. Should we prioritise the interests of human and nonhuman predators or their victims? Do we want to promote a living world where sentient beings harm each other or not?

    Until recently, the problem of predation was academic. But the CRISPR genome-editing revolution and the promise of synthetic gene drives mean the entire biosphere will shortly be programmable.
    So what is the optimal level of suffering in the living world? Should we aim for conservation biology or compassionate biology? Suppose we encounter an advanced civilisation that has abolished population control by starvation, disease and predation in favour of cross-species immunocontraception. Should we urge this peaceable civilisation to restore ancestral horrors - death by asphyxiation, disembowelment or being eaten alive? Or should all sentient beings be allowed to flourish unmolested?

  • Is it possible that our understanding of physics is completely wrong?
  • Asked whether our fundamental conception of the world could be completely mistaken, most of us compare our conception of the world with (our conception of) the world, find they tally with remarkable fidelity, and reply, "No!" Undue intellectual humility is historically rare. "This time it's different"; but then it always is. (cf. "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions) That said, many folk who reply, "Yes!" about physics haven't taken the trouble to master the technical tools needed to make a serious contribution to the discipline (cf. Gerard't Hooft, “How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist”), and are instead promoting an idiosyncratic theory of their own. Perhaps see John Baez, Crackpot index, though also Philip Gibbs, The Anti-Crackpot Index.

    So are worries that our contemporary understanding physics could be completely wrong just idle scepticism?
    ("How do I know I'm not a Boltzmann Brain?” etc)

    Maybe. But e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpretations_of_quantum_mechanics is sobering. The gulf between Everett and Copenhagen is vast and perhaps unbridgeable.
    Particles, fields, loops, strings or branes? Nine different species of multiverse to consider?
    Some physicists even worry that their colleagues aren't doing science any more. Compare, e.g.
    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1511.03209.pdf ("The F-theory geometry with most flux vacua")
    with: "Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics": https://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535.
    Most theorists don’t believe that we're living in a computer simulation. But it's unclear whether the (IMO correct) belief that the Simulation Hypothesis is false is "philosophical” or scientifically grounded:
    "No, we probably don’t live in a computer simulation": http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/no-we-probably-dont-live-in-computer.html.
    The Nobel Laureate who wrote the illuminating "How to become a GOOD Theoretical Physicist" I cited above is himself a believer in superdeterminism, "the ultimate conspiracy theory”:
    Some theorists believe reality has 4 dimensions, most M-theorists 11, Cumrun Vafa 12, Hilbert space / configuration space realists... well, a mind-wrenchingly vast number.
    Lev Vaidman combines Everett (“many worlds”) with the time-symmetric two-state vector formalism (TSVF).
    And so forth.

    In a different vein, philosophers such as Galen Strawson argue that physicists literally don't know what they are talking about:
    Physicalist panpsychism (2017 draft).
    If I were a practising physicist (I’m not!), then I would not take kindly to an outsider suggesting that the formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience rather than insentience. Yet is this presumption of insentience a scientific discovery – or a (plausible) metaphysical assumption? Either way, we don't understand the nature of the medium in which our understanding of the physical world is expressed, and via which this Quora answer is written and read. Disentangling the properties of the medium from its propositional content isn’t as easy as it sounds. Contemplating the Standard Model while on, say, LSD yields a different understanding than contemplating the formalism in ordinary waking consciousness. Might posthumans regard all human minds as not merely ignorant but psychotic?

    I've the highest respect for scientists who do real physics, rather than philosophise from the side-lines.
    But the questioner asked, "Is it possible?" The short answer must be, "Yes".

  • What are the main tenets of transhumanism?
  • “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it's all over much too soon."
    (Woody Allen)
    Transhumanists urge responsible use of technology to overcome our biological limitations. Used wisely, a convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) can deliver a "Triple S" civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness.

    Who will benefit?
    Transhumanists believe that the blessings of NBIC technologies should be universally shared. The Transhumanist Declaration (1999, 2008) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentient life:

    "We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise."
    Thus many transhumanists also aspire to be Effective Altruists.
    The transhumanist movement is richly diverse. Compare the conception of superintelligence set out in Nick Bostrom’s "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies" (2014) with, say, the “The Age of Intelligent Machines” (1990) by Ray Kurzweil.
    If you want to enjoy the benefits of transhuman life, consider signing up with Alcor Life Extension Foundation – and support SENS, run by visionary transhumanist Aubrey de Grey.
    Just how good could life be in the future?
    Most transhumanists are optimists.
    I'm personally a pessimistic negative utilitarian. Yet for technical reasons, IMO future life will probably be sublime.

  • Is consciousness a scary word?
  • “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
    (Max Planck)
    People vary in their susceptibility to cognitive dissonance. Some scientific rationalists find the word “consciousness” makes them uncomfortable, though its utterance doesn’t usually elicit outright fear or disgust. If you believe that we face a stark choice between scientific materialism and religio-mystical obscurantism, then first-person experience is indeed a troubling anomaly. Assume our best scientific understanding of the properties of matter and energy as described by physics is correct. Consciousness ought not to exist (cf. What is the latest view on the Hard Problem of consciousness?). I wish it didn’t (cf. Is suffering worthwhile?). But that’s another story.

    In the history of science, anomalies can sometimes be resolved within an existing conceptual framework. At other times, anomalies presage a scientific revolution (cf. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn). Many scientists believe – and hope – that consciousness falls into the former category. Talk about ”consciousness”, they say sniffily, belongs to philosophy. “Conceptual schemes” and “paradigms” are for New Guinea tribesmen, social studies majors and the humanities department. Real science, i.e. physics, has pretty much figured out how the world works. Abandoning scientific materialism (cf. paradigm shift) would entail abandoning Enlightenment values in favour of dogmatism, superstition and unreason (cf. Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now by Scott Aaronson). How could something so comparatively trivial, confined to a tiny segment of the cosmos, threaten the foundations of the magnificent edifice of modern science: quantitative, rigorous, and experimentally well-tested to an extraordinarily high degree? Human civilisation is based on technologies that simply wouldn’t work if science were false.

    Unfortunately, the anomaly in question consists of the empirical evidence, namely the thought-processes of one’s own mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs. The existence of anything beyond one’s own conscious mind is a speculative theoretical inference (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?). Rationalism and scientific materialism are mutually inconsistent.

    How can we escape this impasse? Thinkers of varying degrees of coherence and scientific literacy have long hoped for a reconciliation between science and other belief-systems. By common consent, they haven’t succeeded. Both science and organised religion are, in their different ways, “totalitarian” conceptual frameworks. If you understand the basics of mathematical physics and the ontological unity of science, then you can’t start playing around with the formalism of quantum mechanics and the Standard Model from which the rest of physical sciences derive, including molecular biology and the neurosciences.

    Indeed so. Instead, as a secular scientific rationalist, I explore non-materialist physicalism. According to non-materialist physicalism, the ontology – not the mathematical formalism – of modern physical science is mistaken. Quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of sentience, not insentience.

    Non-materialist physicalism may well be false. Psychologically, I don’t find such a revised ontology remotely credible. However, the alternatives to non-materialist physicalism are, if anything, more revolutionary, such as dualism, or eliminativism (cf. Are radical eliminativists about consciousness P-zombies?), or abandoning the scientific world-picture altogether in favour of who-knows-what (cf. What are your philosophical positions in one paragraph?).

    One methodological tenet of science that we’d do well to retain, at least when investigating sub-Planckian energy regimes, is experimental testability. What novel and precise empirical predictions can be extracted from your preferred theory of consciousness? The alternative risks empty verbiage. Traditional idealism and property-dualist panpsychism are unfalsifiable. By contrast, non-materialist physicalism can be refuted – or confirmed – by experiment, though such experimentation won’t be easy.

    Perhaps anyone who values their intellectual peace of mind should be scared of the “c” word.

  • Is consciousness possibly a quantum field, just as 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.

  • What do you think of natural selection being used as an argument against vegetarianism and veganism?
  • In modern society, vegetarians tend to be slimmer, longer-lived and more intelligent than meat-eaters (cf. High IQ link to being vegetarian). Selection pressure against the adoption of a cruelty-free diet is therefore unlikely, though confounding variables may complicate the issue.

    For sure, harming other sentient beings to gratify one’s own appetites is natural (cf. Appeal to Nature fallacy). In the evolutionary environment of adaptation, a capacity to hunt, kill and eat members of other species and ethnic groups was potentially fitness-enhancing, though hazardous then as now (cf. Brain legacy of ancient cannibals). Today, however, any predisposition to practise cannibalistic headhunting or (human) baby-eating is genetically maladaptive. Perpetrators would be locked up. Industrialised animal abuse is destined to go the same way.

    How exactly selection pressure against meat-eating will play out in practice is unclear. The growth of ethical vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, the development of tasty “meatless meat” (cf. U.S. Cattlemen want the word "meat" banned from plant-based foods), and the commercialisation of in vitro meat products promises a major dietary transition in human society (cf. Lab-grown 'clean' meat could be on sale by end of 2018). Later this century, the death factories will presumably be shut and outlawed. Our descendants may view eating the flesh of murdered nonhumans with the same revulsion that we regard cannibalism or child abuse. A pig, for example, is as sentient and sapient as a human toddler. Post-humans won’t suffer from anthropocentric bias – and will act accordingly.

    Yet there’s no need to wait for post-human superintelligence for an anti-speciesist revolution. Signalling theory suggests that the ready availability of cheap gourmet in vitro products will lead to a human ethical revolution, too. Consumers will reject slaughterhouses and factory-farming, possibly with vocal righteous indignation, in favour of the healthier and cruelty-free alternatives (cf. Altruistic People Have More Sexual Partners).

    Wild cards exist. For instance, synthetic gene drives could be used as a moral enhancement technology to accelerate the coming dietary transition (cf. How a tick bite can turn you vegetarian). But regulatory approval of such enhancement technologies is implausible, and individual initiative IMO unwise.

    Either way, civilisation will be vegan, not in defiance of selection pressure, but rather via its intensification. Humans don’t need to harm other sentient beings to flourish.

  • 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...
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/03/17/televangelist-65m-buy-jet-now/24893113/
    ("Televangelist asks his congregation for $65M to buy a jet")

  • Can a human be conscious about two thoughts at the same time?
  • Some people have so-called autoscopic doubles (cf. "When You're Visited By A Copy Of Yourself, Stay Calm"). Their phenomenal world-simulation contains more than one bodily self-image. Neuropsychologist Peter Brugger and his colleagues describe a man who experienced five such body-image doubles ("polyopic heautoscopy”). By contrast, no one runs two or more simultaneous streams of logico-linguistic thought. How does the massively parallel human central nervous system generate this sophisticated virtual machine? No one knows. Either way, episodes of what is commonly called thinking are adaptive. Contrast how taking LSD at high doses disrupts the capacity for serial logico-linguistic thought (“flooding”). Such disruption can be incapacitating, especially for the drug naïve.

    So can you entertain two distinct thought-episodes at once? Compare the duck-rabbit illusion. However hard you try, you can’t simultaneously see a duck and a rabbit…

    That said, there is another sense in which massively parallel conscious thoughts define our waking lives. Over a third of the mind-brain is given over to visual processing. Somehow, this visual processing creates the huge macroscopic world-simulation your mind-brain is now running. Thus you can simultaneously generate, say, half a dozen football players running on the pitch or – in the ancestral environment – a pride of hungry lions. If you are awake rather than dreaming, such parallelism can be immensely fitness-enhancing.

    How does a pack of membrane-bound, classical (?) neurons carry it off? Again, no one knows.

  • In quantum mechanics would it make more sense to throw out realism or locality - or both - knowing local realism is incompatible with what we consider the physical world - or is there no intuition on which to throw out?
  • What you normally conceive as the physical world is just a mind-dependent world-simulation run by the CNS. Your quasi-classical world-simulation abruptly disappears when you close your eyes or fall into a dreamless sleep.
    https://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is

    What doesn’t disappear is local realism.
    Quantum physics gives no reason to abandon realism or locality unless we cling to traditional notions of 3d space.

    As far as we know, quantum mechanics is formally complete. Wavefunction monism is true. The superposition principle of QM never breaks down. Reality may formally be described by the continuous, linear, unitary, and deterministic evolution of the universal wavefunction. A powerful selection mechanism akin to Darwinian natural selection creates a functional approximation of classical objects in your mind-independent environment. While you are awake, your seemingly four-dimensional world-simulation tracks fitness-relevant features of the behaviour of these pseudo-classical objects. What we pre-theoretically call “observations” seem to have unique outcomes (cf. “The EPR paradox, Bell’s inequality, and the question of locality” - https://arxiv.org/pdf/0902.3827.pdf). So long as you don’t probe too deeply, your quasi-classical world-simulation will seem to be local in the four-dimensional spacetime of everyday experience. But our everyday world-simulations deceive. Experimentally well-tested violation of Bell inequalities (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_test_experiments) confirm that reality is local only in the high-dimensional space described by the evolution of the wavefunction. The Schrödinger equation is a local differential equation. The alternative to Hilbert space realism is to trust robust commonsense and believe that you live in a four-dimensional spacetime encouraged by naive realist theories of perception. Robust commonsense leads to a Harry Potter universe. Non-locality is indistinguishable from magic.

    Alas I’ve barely scratched the surface of the issues here. Just one note. Most believers in the unitary-only dynamics assumed above are “materialist” physicalists (cf. https://www.quora.com/How-does-physicalism-tackle-the-experience-of-consciousness). Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience. Materialism leads to the Hard Problem of consciousness and a Pandora’s box of mysteries that science is powerless to explain. But non-materialist physicalists can be wavefunction monists too. And unlike materialism, non-materialist physicalism is empirically adequate.

  • 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 do physicists think of David Pearce's physicalism.com ?
  • "Philosophy is too important to be left to philosophers.”
    (John Wheeler)
    What is quantum mind?” is pithier; but I suspect it would elicit a similar response: Crazy!
    Decoherence in the CNS is so strong, rapid and uncontrollable I find the conjecture unbelievable myself.

    Perhaps the one thing to stress is that a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture is theoretically conservative: it’s a non-classical explanation of phenomenal binding that invokes no new principle of physics. Compare the violation of unitarity proposed by the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory.

    Even so, is the conjecture worth experimentally falsifying if it’s so obviously ill-conceived? The theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS is femtoseconds or less (cf. “Experimental motivation and empirical consistency in minimal no-collapse quantum mechanics” by Maximilian Schlosshauer: https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0506199.pdf). I’d guess most theorists would be content to treat such timescales as the reductio ad absurdum of “no collapse” theories of quantum mind – and leave it at that.

    One reason for this relaxed attitude is that many physicists don’t find phenomenal binding mysterious, or even a puzzle.
    Compare Max Tegmark in “Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer” (2000):
    4.4.3. The binding problem
    One of the motivations for models with quantum coherence in the brain was the so-called binding problem. In the words of James [77,78], ``the only realities are the separate molecules, or at most cells. Their aggregation into a `brain' is a fiction of popular speech''. James' concern, shared by many after him, was that consciousness did not seem to be spatially localized to any one small part of the brain, yet subjectively feels like a coherent entity. Because of this, Stapp [3] and many others have appealed to quantum coherence, arguing that this could make consciousness a holistic effect involving the brain as a whole.

    However, non-local degrees of freedom can be important even in classical physics, For instance, oscillations in a guitar string are local in Fourier space, not in real space, so in this case the ``binding problem'' can be solved by a simple change of variables. As Eddington remarked [79], when observing the ocean we perceive the moving waves as objects in their own right because they display a certain permanence, even though the water itself is only bobbing up and down. Similarly, thoughts are presumably highly non-local excitation patterns in the neural network of our brain, except of a nonlinear and much more complex nature. In short, this author feels that there is no binding problem.

    By contrast, David Chalmers regards the “problem of structural mismatch” as a compelling argument for dualism. See “The Combination Problem for Panpsychism” (2016): http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf Even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, Chalmers argues, the unity of consciousness is inconsistent with monistic physicalism.

    Who is right?
    I don’t know; but I’ve more faith in interferometry than philosophy.

  • What does David Pearce think of negative utilitarianism?
  • “Suffering-focused ethics” is a stronger brand name than negative utilitarianism (NU), but the core ethic is the same. Our overriding obligation is to mitigate and prevent suffering. Ethically speaking, minimising suffering always takes precedence over the creation of pleasure. NU just formalises and systematises the insight captured in the Ursula le Guin’s fable, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (1973).

    For sure, not many people conceive of themselves as NUs. Yet few of us would argue that e.g. the reason to discourage child abuse is that practising child abuse is insufficiently pleasurable when set against the harm caused to the victims, and that if some people experience extreme pleasure from harming small children, then they are ethically obliged to do so.

    Sadly, humans are inconsistent. Meat lovers don’t apply this insight to factory-farmed non-human animals of comparable sentience to human infants and toddlers. So our supermarkets resemble a war-crimes exhibition. Perhaps compare the Affront society in novelist Iain Bank’s Culture series. Affront society is described as being "a never-ending, self-perpetuating holocaust of pain and misery", where the strongest species preys upon the weaker.
    Mankind is the Affront in all but name.

    On a brighter note, we may look forward to a transhuman future of boundless well-being – sublime bliss beyond human comprehension. See Life in the Year 3000. Maybe our successors will view NU as some kind of depressive psychosis. Yet the NU ethicist says that even posthuman superhappiness is ethically indefensible if the price is the suffering of a single sentient being.
    And the miseries of Darwinian life are orders of magnitude worse. So I’d walk away from Omelas.
    If Reality had an OFF switch, I’d press it.

    Reality has no such switch. All that intelligent moral agents can do is combine a universalist ethic with the tools of biotechnology to ensure that suffering is physically impossible – and perhaps one day literally inconceivable – in our forward lightcone. We are living in the final century in which the biology of experience below “hedonic zero” is technically inescapable. Later this century and beyond, unpleasant experience in any guise will be technically optional. Mastery of our reward circuitry, the CRISPR genome-editing revolution, and tomorrow’s synthetic gene drives can potentially turn high-flown sentiments into practical policy in humans and non-human animals alike.

    Sadly, this prediction can’t be dated with any precision. Centuries of misery and malaise probably still lie ahead, and perhaps millennia. For instance, most humans prefer having children “naturally”, i.e. via a genetic crapshoot, over responsible parenthood and designer babies. Yet if anyone claims “There Is No Alternative!” to Darwinian life, they are mistaken.
    I say a bit more on negative utilitarianism here:
    NU, CU & utilitronium shockwaves.

  • Where do we perceive the outside world since the brain itself is "the outside world"? Where is our consciousness?
  • The philosopher Bertrand Russell often used to say that one perceives only the inside of one’s own head. Sadly, this is true. The people one meets are zombies. However, there is a difference between the zombies one meets while dreaming and the zombies one meets while awake. The behaviour of the zombies one meets when awake tends to track – and causally co-varies with – other sentient beings whose skull-bound minds support zombie-ridden world-simulations of their own.

    So how does a pack of supposedly slow, inefficient, allegedly classical neurons pull off this astonishing feat of computation: the simulation of a phenomenally unified macroscopic world in almost real time? Even if individual neurons support rudimentary micro-experience, why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies?

    Here we enter controversial territory: What is quantum mind? Thermally-induced decoherence is normally reckoned too uncontrollably powerful to allow non-classical explanations of phenomenal binding.

    And challenges multiply.
    If one is insensibly trapped inside one’s (theoretically inferred) transcendental skull, how can one think and speak of others? How could one’s juvenile namesake have learned a public language (cf. Wittgenstein’s private language argument) if confined within the Cartesian theatre?
    Perhaps see the symbol grounding problem for a naturalistic answer.

  • What would happen if the whole world was gay?
  • Maybe a huge increase in human survival prospects.

    In an era of WMD, nationalism and territorial wars of aggression are the greatest source of existential and global catastrophic risk faced by mankind. Building sentience-friendly biological intelligence is a bigger challenge than building sentience-friendly AI. Evolutionary biologists still debate the underlying causes of organised conflict in Homo sapiens. Not least, genes and culture co-evolved. Yet heterosexuality is arguably the villain of the piece (cf. The genetic legacy of Genghis Khan). Whether in chimpanzees or in humans, heterosexual male aggression in competition for a scarce limiting resource, i.e. fertile females, appears to be the biggest underlying biological-genetic cause of war (cf. Male warrior hypothesis - Wikipedia).

    Tellingly, history doesn’t record a single instance of women banding together for the proposes of territorial war of aggression. The same analysis is true of gays – both male and female. Other things being equal, all-female or exclusively gay governance would significantly reduce the risk of Armageddon. The pacific outcome of an all-gay power-elite is more speculative than an all-women power-elite, but still persuasive. Suggestively, the US Defense Department even considered developing gay love-bombs to reduce the fighting spirit of enemy troops (cf. The “gay bomb”: US military pondered love not war). Perhaps mass-medication with sustainable analogs of the “hug drug” MDMA (Ecstasy) would exert a similar beneficial effect, though via triggering indiscriminate affection between males and females alike rather than targeting sexual orientation.

    All-gay human populations would have further far-reaching effects on our society. A transition to reproduction by artificial insemination, and responsible parenthood via “designer babies” rather than today’s genetic crapshoot, would improve human health and happiness. Unplanned pregnancies and unwanted babies would be unknown. All-gay society would curb ecologically unsustainable growth in population size. Violence against women, too, would be massively reduced.

    The sweeping statements above would each need to be qualified in any serious analysis of your scenario. For instance, various warriors in history appear to have been bisexual, if not gay. Classical antiquity even records the Sacred Band of Thebes. Ancient Greek sexuality is anomalous in many ways. Despite these caveats, believers in suffering-focused ethics should presumably welcome the idea of pan-homosexuality in humans as a marked improvement on the status quo.

    So should advocates of existential and global catastrophic risk-reduction be actively exploring this policy option? Machiavellian womanisers might even encourage the development of a “straight-cure” in humans to reduce the competition (cf. Homosexuality Turned On and Off in Fruit Flies).

    Perhaps. Yet in my view, status quo bias is too strong for any workable proposal to gain political credibility. As with so many utopian ideas, a biological-genetic cure for heterosexuality will probably never be implemented. It’s just an interesting thought-experiment.

  • What is the adaptive significance of consciousness?
  • Experts differ. Perhaps consciousness per se has no adaptive significance. However, biological minds are endowed with an immensely fitness-enhancing adaptation that science cannot currently explain, namely phenomenal binding. If we make the seemingly modest assumption that neurons can be treated as decohered classical objects, then phenomenal binding is hard if not impossible to reconcile with physicalism. A pack of membrane-bound neurons should at most be patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust”. Phenomenal binding embraces both “local “binding, i.e. individual perceptual objects within one’s world-simulation, and “global” binding, i.e. the unity of perception and the unity of the self. Unless consciousness is non-psychotically bound, it’s functionally and computationally useless. But to say that phenomenally bound consciousness is potentially genetically adaptive is not to explain how it’s physically possible. I try to say a bit more in answering: Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?

  • What will come after humans have gone extinct?
  • “Human extinction” conjures up apocalyptic scenarios of killer asteroids, global thermonuclear war, or maybe a zombie putsch (cf. AI will probably destroy humans, Elon Musk warns). Some philosophers invoke the probabilistic Doomsday argument to argue that the third millennium is likely to be humanity’s last.

    So prepare for Armageddon?

    Probably not. The end of Homo sapiens is most likely to be peaceful. Neurochips and CRISPR-based genome-editing promise to rewrite “human nature” in a recursive cycle of self-improvement. Humans will become transhumans, who will become post-humans. Alas, too many “unknown unknowns” exist to be confident about timescales. Yet the reality of full-spectrum superintelligence will probably surpass our wildest fantasies.

  • Why does existence exist?
  • What would inexistence entail?
    Our pre-theoretic conception of “existence” and “non-existence” belong to classical physics and, ultimately, developmental psychology.

    So what does our best scientific theory of the world, quantum physics, have to say about this presumptive default state?

    Alas, the experts don’t agree on how to interpret the quantum field-theoretic formalism:
    “It is not at all clear what quantum theory is about. Indeed, it is not at all clear what quantum theory actually says. Is quantum mechanics fundamentally about measurement and observation? Is it about the behavior of macroscopic variables? Or is it about our mental states? Is it about the behavior of wave functions? Or is it about the behavior of suitable fundamental microscopic entities, elementary particles and/or fields? Quantum mechanics provides us with formulas for lots of probabilities. What are these the probabilities of? Of results of measurements? Or are they the probabilities for certain unknown details about the state of a system, details that exist and are meaningful prior to measurement?”
    (Sheldon Goldstein in Elegance and Enigma: The Quantum Interviews (2011), Maximilian Schlosshauer (ed.)

    In my view, only Everett makes sense. “No-collapse” quantum mechanics (QM) is the only interpretation of QM that conserves realism, determinism and locality. Also, Everett is the only interpretation of QM consistent with a zero ontology. On pain of magic, the net information content of reality can only be zero.

    Admittedly, such a formulation doesn’t quite capture one’s naïve conception of the default state of “nothingness” from which any departure would be inexplicable. Yet how much store should one place on naïve intuition? Perhaps see:
    Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?

  • 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.
    (cf. http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness)

    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": https://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.

  • Does a human being's right to life imply a right to life extension?
  • Yes. Perhaps consider sufferers from the rare accelerated ageing syndromes known as progeria. Few victims of Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome and Werner syndrome outlive their teens, when they die from conditions commonly associated with old age, typically a stroke or a heart attack.

    When a cure is found for progeria, withholding life-extension for such a cruel disorder would – uncontroversially – be morally indefensible. By what perverse ethical criterion might treatment be denied when therapies are devised for unaccelerated senescence: the long-drawn-out counterpart of the grim signs and symptoms experienced by victims of progeria?

    In short, "healthy aging" is a contradiction in terms. Maybe our quasi-immortal successors will view archaic humans as sufferers from a progeroid syndrome just as terrible as progeria appears to "normally" aging people today.

    Admittedly, speaking of a "right" to radical life-extension sounds extravagant. How could such a hypothetical right be legally enforced? Critically, no truly revolutionary antiaging therapy yet exists, despite ongoing trials of interventions like metformin and rapamycin. What needn't be empty words is a stopgap: universal access to (opt-out) cryonics and (opt-in) cryothanasia. Cryonic suspension in optimal conditions is the easiest way to defang death until the medical catastrophe of ageing is solved. For sure, not everyone is convinced. Millions of religious believers place their faith in eternal life in the hereafter. Yet double insurance is harmless, and the premiums of cryonics are cheaper.

    Advocacy of radical life-extension and cryonics still strikes some Buddhists, Benatarians, and proponents of suffering-focused ethics as misguided. Disbelievers in an enduring metaphysical ego, too, are sceptical about the prospect of nominal billion-year lifespans. But in a Darwinian world, bereavement and aging cause immense misery. There is no contradiction between overcoming aging and overcoming the biology of suffering. Posthuman life will be wonderful. Why should anyone feel compelled to miss out?

    Naturally, the pitfalls of a post-aging civilisation must be weighed. For instance, the right to procreative freedom and the right to eternal youth are inconsistent on pain of Malthusian catastrophe. This is true whether we reckon the carrying capacity of the Earth is 15 billion or 150 billion or more.

    Other rationalisations of human mortality are merely naïve. Compare, “But I'd get bored of living for ever!" Defeating the biology of boredom will be trivial compared to defeating the biology of aging.

    However, the biggest incongruity of the life-extensionist movement lies elsewhere. Humans have long dreamed of eternal youth. Yet billions of nonhuman animals as sentient and sapient as human toddlers end up dead on our dinner-plates after a lifetime of abuse. The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) affirms our commitment to the well-being of all sentience. In my view, the right to flourish indefinitely should extend to humble minds – human and nonhuman alike.
    Alas, reprogramming the biosphere so that all sentient beings can live happily-ever-after poses an enormous challenge.

  • Why would someone want to end humanity?
  • A rational understanding of what utilitarian ethics entails?
    (cf. If you had a chance would you destroy the world?)

    Today, status quo bias runs deep. Conservation biology is an ideology masquerading as a science. Many researchers seek to extend the tenets of conservation biology to humans. By contrast, a benevolent superintelligence might view Darwinian life on Earth as an infestation of biological malware and act accordingly. The amount of suffering caused by Homo sapiens is hard to quantify. But the suffering is immense and growing daily with the spread of industrialised animal abuse.

    So should anyone morally serious be plotting Armageddon?
    No, in my view. Even radical anti-natalism is impracticable. Anti-natalist prophets of human extinction like David Benatar ignore the nature of selection pressure. The only non-trivial way I know to mitigate the horrors of Darwinian life is via biotechnology. Reprogramming the biosphere to minimise, and then abolish, experience below “hedonic zero” poses many challenges. Yet we’re not going to run out of computational resources.

    Timescales? Technical feasibility and sociological credibility are distinct issues. Futurists are apt to confuse prediction with wish-fulfilment. Nonetheless, humans will probably be extinct a thousand years from now (cf. Life in the Year 3000). The demise of Homo sapiens (probably) won’t take the guise of some apocalyptic mass extinction event. Rather, recursively self-improving biological robots will edit their genetic source codes and bootstrap their way to full-spectrum superintelligence.

    Might populations of archaic humans be retained by our successors in some kind of wildlife reserves? Perhaps recall John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

    All futurology is speculative, so we can’t say for sure. But conserving the biology of aging, involuntary suffering, hereditary feeble-mindedness, and the quasi-sociopathic indifference that humans display to other sentient beings would be wantonly cruel. Pain-ridden ecosystems are unethical. So oblivion is probably mankind’s best fate.

    In the meantime, mastery of the molecular machinery of bliss promises a civilised society and a pan-species welfare state. Future civilisation will enjoy a hedonic range orders of magnitude richer than our squalid Darwinian reward circuitry permits.

    How many orders of magnitude higher? How broad or narrow a hedonic range? I don’t know. Yet for technical reasons, posthuman life will be like Heaven – only better.

  • What's the Cartesian theatre? Can consciousness be explained without it?
  • Do you directly perceive the environment? Or is there an inner theatre inside your head inspected by a homunculus (“little man"), followed in turn by a private theatre inside his head inspected by a smaller homunculus, and so on ad infinitum? Daniel Dennett uses the metaphor of the Cartesian theatre to challenge not just the mind-brain dualism of René Descartes, but also “Cartesian materialism”, the idea that phenomenal experience is a process of presentation somehow realised in the physical neurons of the brain.

    It’s a false dichotomy. Perceptual direct realism and Dennettian eliminativism alike are ill-conceived. Your CNS runs a conscious, real-time simulation of the mind-independent world, including a simulation of your mind-independent body (cf. "phantom limbs"). Your immense world-simulation runs inside the transcendental skull that encases your mind-brain. This astonishing (and unexplained) computational feat surpasses anything feasible with twenty-first century AI and robotics.

    The nature of perception is controversial. So instead, let’s consider lucid dreaming. When you are having a lucid dream, you know that the sky above and the mountains afar are internal to your transcendental head. The virtual people you meet are zombies. Within your dreamworld, when you inspect your virtual body-image in a mirror, or manually feel with your virtual hands your “empirical” skull, you know that everything plays out inside your “transcendental” skull. With the right technology, you may even communicate, erratically, with other skull-bound lucid dreamers in the inferred external world (cf. " Saying 'Hi' Through A Dream: How The Internet Could Make Sleeping More Social"). Critically, your conscious inner theatre and its dramatis personae of homunculi are real, although not an infinite regress of nested homunculi. No doubt the lucid dreams of philosophers differ from the lucid dreams of normal folk. The general point stands.

    So what happens during the neurological transition we call “waking up”? Perceptual direct realists believe that your dreamworld Cartesian theatre, and its walk-on cast of zombie homunculi, is somehow replaced in “awakened” minds by direct access to a public macroscopic world.
    My view? Perhaps see:
    What is the difference between perception and consciousness?
    Or (much) more controversially:
    Is the brain a quantum computer?

  • Can you boil quantum physics down to one sentence?
  • The superposition principle (cf. “Schrödinger’s cat”) never breaks down: reality is exhausted by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal wavefunction.

  • What happens to our consciousness when we're asleep?
  • “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?”
    (Ernest Hemingway)
    The conventional scientific answer:
    Falling into a dreamless sleep destroys consciousness. Unlike fundamental conservation laws of nature (mass-energy, CPT symmetry, etc), consciousness is not conserved. How and why subjective experience pops in-and-out of existence is not understood. Philosophers talk of the Hard Problem of consciousness rather than miracles or magic. But alas our understanding of the properties of matter and energy as formalised in the Standard Model is inconsistent with the empirical evidence.

    An unconventional answer:
    Non-materialist physicalism is true. Consciousness can neither be created nor destroyed. The formalism of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Subjective experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. So falling asleep doesn’t destroy consciousness. Instead, decoherence turns you into an effectively classical pack of neurons: a “micro-experiential zombie”.

  • 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.
    huxley.net

  • What do you think of utilitarianism?
  • Classical utilitarianism offers the most promising way to naturalise morality. If so, then the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. One counterintuitive implication of a classical utilitarian ethic is that rational moral agents should work to create a utilitronium shockwave. “Utilitronium” (or “hedonium”) is matter and energy optimised for pure bliss. The “shockwave” alludes to its AI-assisted velocity of propagation, presumably approaching the velocity of light.

    The molecular signature of pure bliss is not yet known. However, our ultimate "hedonic hotspot” lies in the ventral pallidum. The creation of an unimaginably intense cosmic orgasm in our forward light-cone is not a scenario the founders of utilitarian ethics had in mind. Yet it’s not clear that the classical utilitarian can settle for life based on gradients of intelligent well-being, as distinct from undifferentiated cosmic bliss.
    My personal view?
    I say a little more in response to Oxford utilitarian philosopher Toby Ord’s charge that negative utilitarianism is a “devastatingly callous” doctrine here.

  • Is it possible that humankind is lacking something that we can't define, that is missing from our understanding of the universe?
  • Yes. We simply don't understand the medium via which you formulate your question, namely conscious thought. Taking consciousness-altering drugs is intellectually humbling. Psychedelics alter our medium of thought in ways inexpressible in our conceptual scheme.

    Naively, this drug-induced change shouldn’t matter (cf. Psychologism). Thus the abstract propositional content of thought is often usefully distinguished from the vehicle of its expression. Yet abstractions such as propositional content or mathematical truth are ultimately only useful fictions. None of us can "step outside" our subjective thought-episodes to examine how the properties of the medium are contaminating its notional content.

    An analogy here might be functionally equivalent sensory inverted qualia. Unfortunately, this is a shallow analogy because we lack the conceptual resources to express the cognitive analogues of inverted perceptual experience. Worse, it's unclear if there is a truth-functionally "right" or "wrong" texture to our medium of thought. Compare how classical digital computers / artificial intelligences don’t (as far as we know) support a non-trivial phenomenology. Our behaviourally ever-smarter AIs are zombies, or at least micro-experiential zombies (cf. Functionalism). In contrast, the generic properties of the medium by which the conscious human mind “understands” anything also permeate its conception of reality. Thomas Kuhn talked of the incommensurability of scientific paradigms. More aptly, perhaps posthuman psychonauts will speak of the incommensurability of state-spaces of experience. Posthuman consciousness – and posthuman understanding of reality – will most likely be alien to human primitives.

    In one sense, natural science is a huge cognitive achievement by Homo sapiens. Without modern science, technological civilisation would be impossible. Surely we must be doing something right? Physicists sometimes claim that (complications aside) no "element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best description of the world: relativistic quantum field theory (QFT) or its stringy generalisation. All of the “special sciences” (chemistry, molecular biology, etc) can in principle be derived from quantum physics.

    Sadly for this happy tale, "materialist" physicalism cannot explain (1) the existence, (2) the causal and functional efficacy, (3) the rich diversity, and (4) the classically impossible phenomenal binding of first-person consciousness, i.e. any of the empirical evidence. All one can ever access, except by inference and conjecture, is the subjective content of one's own mind and the quasi-classical phenomenal world-simulation it runs. If “materialist” physicalism were true, then one wouldn’t exist, which is intellectually embarrassing. Even if one entertains (as I do) the possibility that non-materialist (“idealistic”) physicalism is true, then we're still akin to savages gazing at Egyptian hieroglyphics prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Analogously, nothing is formally missing from the mathematical machinery of QFT. The values of the solutions to the equations of QFT exhaustively encode the textures of our experiences – and countless state-spaces of experience besides. Yet how? Why? The scientific community has not the slightest idea. Will a post-Galilean science of consciousness give us hints? Maybe. I don’t know.

  • How does consciousness interact with the brain?
  • “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.”
    (Pierre Cabanis)
    Many people think they have a brain. They've never seen or felt it. But science says that most folk have brains of sorts. The principle of mediocrity suggests that one has a brain too. A lump of cheesy wet neural porridge inside one's cranium complements a heart, liver, kidneys (etc) to support life. Perhaps we've seen enhanced photos of neurons under light microscopy, read some texts on “neural networks", waded through tons of neurobabble on Medline, and seen neuroscans (fMRI, PET, SPECT, etc) on YouTube. Maybe we've also watched videos of a neurosurgeon operating.

    Well, there is a sense in which each of us does have something (very) crudely functionally analogous to a “brain”. Yet the cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge of one's imagination – and lying exposed to inspection on a surgical operating table – are mind-dependent artifacts of the conscious world-simulation run by one's CNS.

    Poet Emily Dickinson was right…
    Is the brain a quantum computer

  • 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:
    http://www.technologyreview.com/news/543721/with-this-genetic-engineering-technology-theres-no-turning-back/
    ("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

  • Since the Hedonistic Imperative now seems technically feasible, what are the largest sociological barriers stopping its realization?
  • "Whatever is, is right."
    (Alexander Pope, Epistle 1 of an Essay on Man. 1733–1734)
    Should we conserve the biology of suffering?
    Or genetically engineer a civilisation based on gradients of intelligent bliss?

    HI was written in 1995. Talk of e.g. "Genetically Engineering Almost Anything" (cf. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/evolution/crispr-gene-drives/) could be dismissed as utopian sci-fi. But as you say, from an engineering perspective, HI is feasible – a transhuman "Triple S" civilisation based on superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. Life on Earth could be wonderful and perhaps even sublime. So why isn't a transhumanist agenda yet mainstream?

    Perhaps the single greatest obstacle to abolishing the horrors of Darwinian life isn’t religious, ethical and ideological opposition. It's status quo bias. Consider physical pain. Words don't do justice to how unbelievably nasty the experience of raw pain can be. Even "mild" uncontrolled chronic pain can lead to clinical or sub-clinical depression. We now have the technology (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preimplantation_genetic_diagnosis) to ensure that all children born into the world are blessed with an extremely high pain tolerance – the kind of pain-threshold of today’s genetic outliers who insist, "Pain is just a useful signalling mechanism.” Eventually, even “mild” physical pain can be eliminated in favour of pain-free nociception. (cf. "Should we eliminate the human ability to feel pain?" http://io9.gizmodo.com/5946914/should-we-eliminate-the-human-ability-to-feel-pain) In the meantime, no holy religious text proclaims, "Thou shalt not use preimplantation genetic screening to ensure your future children are born with benign ‘low-pain’ alleles of the SCN9A gene." (cf. https://www.wired.com/2017/04/the-cure-for-pain/ – "How a Single Gene Could Become a Volume Knob for Pain") Yet most religious and secular people continue to have children via the time-honoured genetic crapshoot, trusting that Providence or Mother Nature will lead to a happy outcome. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_nature)

    Or consider the suffering of nonhuman animals, both domestic and free-living (“wild”). Closing and outlawing factory-farms and slaughterhouses would entail minimal personal inconvenience to consumers. No need to wait until cheap gourmet in vitro meat products reach the supermarket shelves. If more people can be induced to explore e.g. plant-based veggieburgers, then meat-eaters would realise that switching to a cruelty-free lifestyle would have a negligible impact on their own quality of life. Once again, the dead weight of tradition hangs heavy. Recognising there is something deeply morally wrong (cf. Speciesism: Why It Is Wrong and the Implications of Rejecting It" by Magnus Vinding) with what ordinary, “decent” people have done all their lives doesn’t come naturally to most of us. (cf. https://aeon.co/essays/what-will-our-descendants-judge-as-our-greatest-sin - "What will our descendants judge as our greatest sin?")

    More ambitiously, the entre biosphere is now programmable via synthetic CRISPR-based gene drives. Vector-borne disease is eliminable – to the benefit of human and nonhuman animals alike. Our reward circuitry too is reprogrammable, not just in humans, but across the tree of life. Intelligent moral agents will shortly be in a position to choose the optimal level of suffering in the living world in defiance of the “laws” of Mendelian inheritance. Unlike giving up meat, this challenge is computationally non-trivial. But status quo bias means that most people reflexively support "conservation biology", or even reactionary proposals like "re-wilding", without giving the terrible suffering of nonhumans a second thought.

    Of course, the problem isn’t “just” status quo bias, or even ethical-ideological rationalisation of our daily woes. We shouldn’t gloss over well-reasoned objections to any grandiose megaproject to eliminate suffering. Who’s going to be in charge? The UN? The World Health Organization? Who will pay? The risks of genome-editing are real. Any critic who pleads for exhaustive prior research before we start editing germ-lines should be respected. The technical obstacles to getting rid of all experience below “hedonic zero” aren’t insuperable, at least to the best of our knowledge (cf. The Church-Turing Thesis); but they are still huge. “Mental” distress is complex. The scope for unanticipated side-effects and “unknown unknowns” from biological interventions is indisputably far-reaching. Genes and culture co-evolved. The high genetic loading of hedonic set-points doesn’t make socio-economic reform any less urgent. There’s also the question of sociologically and technically realistic timescales. Not least, cheating the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill, and genetically raising hedonic set-points so we all feel “better than well”, isn’t nearly as easy as genetically reducing the burden of physical pain.

    Maybe the best way to tease apart principled objections to global biohappiness from mere status quo bias is to pose a thought-experiment. Variants of this thought-experiment can also be devised for any other item on the transhumanist agenda. Ask the critic to imagine we encounter an advanced civilisation that has rewritten its genetic source-code. Its members are animated entirely by information-sensitive gradients of well-being – a default hedonic state far richer than human “peak experiences”. Let’s assume that the genetically-tweaked descendants of ancestral "wildlife" graze blissfully in their conservation parks. Population sizes are regulated by cross-species immunocontraception rather than starvation, disease and predation. The extra-terrestrials are hyper-intelligent, i.e. they aren’t “blissed out” (cf. gradients.com - "An information-theoretic perspective on life in Heaven"). Yet most of their sensual, intellectual and psychonautic delights are alien to us. ("The limits of pleasures are as yet neither known nor fixed, and we have no idea what degree of bodily bliss we are capable of attaining" – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin). Now for the crux. What credible arguments might human bioconservative critics use to persuade this advanced civilisation to re-introduce the biology of involuntary suffering and malaise – and all the other nasty states of mind that were fitness-enhancing in their ancestral environment? Depending on the degree of convergent evolution, perhaps their ancestors too once experienced jealousy, resentment, envy, spite, depression, status-anxiety, existential angst – all the ghastly stuff we call “part of what it means to be human”. What exactly are their superhappy minds missing? Should they practise “re-wilding” and bring it back?

    Quite possibly they'd view human primitives as in the grip of a depressive psychosis.
    Would they be right?

  • Is the universe really composed of matter?
  • Probably not. The dominant model in cosmology (cf. the Lambda-CDM model) suggests that an unknown form of energy, dark energy, makes up 68.3% the total mass–energy of the universe. Around 26.8% of the universe is made up of so-called dark matter composed of unknown elementary particles. Most mysterious of all is the 4.9% of the total mass–energy made up of the field quanta that you instantiate, i.e. protons, neutrons, electrons, and so forth.

    We normally assume that quantum field theory (QFT) describes fields of insentience rather than sentience. This assumption is impossible to reconcile with the empirical evidence, i.e. you are not a zombie. Faced with a conflict between theory and evidence, a majority of scientists prefer theory. How can a theory accurate to 14 decimal places be hopelessly mistaken? (cf. Precision tests of QED). Mathematics is proverbially the language of science. Alas, rigor easily leads to rigor mortis. A hardening of the conceptual arteries with age afflicts us all (cf. Scientific Revolutions). Rather than speaking of the Hard Problem of consciousness, a minority of researchers have been willing to explore alternative ontologies that are consistent with the empirical evidence – and been widely ridiculed for their pains (cf. Sentient Robots, Conscious Spoons and Other Cheerful Follies).

    Who is right? I don’t know:
    What do you think of the panpsychist view that everything has an element of consciousness?

  • Why is superlongevity so much more popular among transhumanists than superhappiness?
  • “Happiness is a very pretty thing to feel, but very dry to talk about.”
    (Jeremy Bentham)
    A “triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness is technically feasible. A future of indefinitely youthful life based on gradients of intelligent bliss looks increasingly credible too.
    Which “super” is most exciting?
    That partly depends on timescales.

    Ethically, I think creating a biology of superhuman bliss for all sentient beings should be our priority. This is currently a minority view. As you note, more transhumanists focus on radical life-extension or intelligence-amplification than on phasing out the biology of suffering or hedonic engineering. Such sharp differences in focus don’t mean that radical life-extensionists and cryonicists are indifferent to subjective well-being. Aging, age-related disorders and bereavement cause immense suffering. Anyone who contributes to their cure will be a greater benefactor of all sentience than writers of philosophical tracts on superhappiness. Aubrey de Grey (SENS) and Max More (Alcor) have been stellar contributors here. Realistically, though, most of us find it hard consistently to care about a world in which we are missing. Personal mortality typically looms larger than a posthuman regime of perpetual bliss. Whatever one’s philosophical theory of personal (non-)identity (e.g. enduring metaphysical egos versus open or empty individualism), evolution has made us incorrigibly egocentric. The thought that life on Earth will be wonderful after you’re dead rarely brings joy to the heart. Behind any grandiose futurist treatise lies the pathos of an intimate personal narrative.

    Even if one does advocate the primacy of subjective well-being, a commitment to universal happiness doesn’t entail cheerleading a full-frontal assault on the biology of suffering, let alone promoting a world of superhuman bliss. Some transhumanists, e.g. Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky, believe that we’re on the brink of an Intelligence Explosion. Moore’s law in computer science combined with the prospect of recursively self-improving software-based AI allegedly promises – or threatens – a runaway explosion of machine superintelligence. If you believe that the Intelligence Explosion is a credible scenario – as distinct from a Kurzweilian fusion of humans and machine AGI or AI-assisted biological superintelligence – then a focus on ensuring a sentience-friendly Technological Singularity takes precedence over our more parochial worries. Sentience-friendly superintelligence can presumably cure suffering and ageing – and create cosmological superhappiness.

    My own view is biocentric. Darwinian life is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Life on Earth is a story of obscene misery. Despite our crimes against sentience, Homo sapiens is the only species intellectually capable of ending suffering across the tree of life. Thus humans are a necessary evil. Let’s shut down our monstrous factory-farms and slaughterhouses, rewrite our genetic source code, and reprogram the biosphere to guarantee the well-being of all sentience. Defeating the scourge of aging, and bootstrapping our way to full-spectrum superintelligence, can complement the creation of life based on gradients of bliss. I’m personally a super-pessimist. Yet if we navigate the perils of the twenty-first century, then the future of life will be glorious beyond human imagination.

  • What is your view of John Wheeler’s concept that we exist in a participatory universe, which he described as “it from bit’?
  • “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe…. Observer participancy gives rise to information; and information gives rise to physics.”
    (John Wheeler)
    Do “observers” play a privileged role in creating reality, as John Wheeler believed in later life? Or as Wheeler’s PhD student Hugh Everett argued, is reality described by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of (a relativistic analogue of) the universal Schrödinger equation?
    Everett’s modest conception of the role of observers strikes me as more credible.

    It from bit”? Wheeler’s conception of the primacy of information in physics has been seminal. See e.g. https://plus.maths.org/content/it-bit" target="_blank">It from bit?, although a short article can only scratch the surface of Wheeler’s contribution to modern physics.
    My view? I’d ask where all this information is supposed to come from. Recall another famous quote from Wheeler,
    “Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it — in a decade, a century, or a millennium — we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid?”
    I wonder. Perhaps we should turn “It from bit” on its head. Maybe the net information content of reality as described by Everettian QM is necessarily zero, in a sense we don’t yet adequately fathom. How could information be created ex nihilo? We’re living in the quantum analogue of the Library of Babel. It from no bit, so to speak. (cf. Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?)
    Alas, at the risk of stating the obvious, don’t take the philosophical musings of armchair physicists on Quora too seriously!

  • Does quantum physics explain consciousness?
  • Conventional answer: no. Neither quantum nor classical physics explain the existence, diversity, phenomenal binding and causal efficacy of consciousness. The Hard Problem is an unfathomable mystery.
    (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_mysterianism)

    Non-materialist physicalist answer: yes. Quantum mechanics (i.e. QFT or its extension) is formally complete. The superposition principle of QM never breaks down. You consist of quadrillions of "cat states" (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_superposition). Only the universal validity of the superposition principle allows your CNS to run phenomenally bound world-simulations featuring classical-looking cats and determinate pointer-readings. Decohered classical neurons can’t phenomenally simulate a classical world. You’d just be Jamesian “mind-dust”. But coherent quantum minds can simulate classical worlds – and they've been doing so for over 540 million years. Quantum physics explains why you’re not a micro-experiential zombie. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_brain)

    This possibility is counterintuitive. After all, back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that thermally-induced decoherence "destroys" (i.e. scrambles the phase angles of components of) neuronal superpositions inside your skull within femtoseconds or less (cf. http://faculty.up.edu/schlosshauer/publications/annals.pdf). There exists no Divine Moviemaker to sculpt coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors into the well-behaved macroscopic world-simulation that you're undergoing right now. Intuitively, neuronal superpositions are just vanishingly short-lived psychotic "noise".

    Maybe so. Yet recall Paley's Divine Watchmaker. Just as the workings of the evolutionary processes of natural selection are analogous to a Blind Watchmaker, the far more powerful and unrelenting selection pressure of quantum Darwinism in your CNS is akin to a Blind Moviemaker. A shame about the script.
    What about "mangled" frames? (cf. http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/mangle.pdf)
    Well, they are real too on pain of violating unitarity. Evolution is wasteful.

    Note that despite unfamiliar terminology, the selection mechanism of Zurek's quantum Darwinism that explains the emergence of mind-independent classicality from quantum reality isn't the name of a speculative modification of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Rather, it’s just an extension of the decoherence program in post-Everett QM. Whether quantum Darwinism playing out inside our heads can also explain phenomenally bound conscious mind will be known only when molecular matter-wave interferometry independently deciphers the non-classical signature.
    Noise or a perfect structural match?
    https://www.physicalism.com/abstract.html
    I can guess; but intuitions are cheap.

  • What do anti-natalists think of The Hedonistic Imperative as proposed by David Pearce?
  • Are we morally entitled to bring more suffering into the world? For evolutionary reasons, most people have a deep desire to have children. Involuntary childlessness itself causes great anguish. Choosing to adopt children is admirable. Yet a lot of people desperately desire to have their “own” children. So the endless cycle of misery and malaise goes on, supposedly outweighed by the good things in life.

    What is to be done?
    Two kinds of anti-natalism are worth distinguishing. The first kind is what we may call “soft” anti-natalism. Soft anti-natalists choose not to procreate. They argue the Earth would be better off with fewer people. But “strong” anti-natalism, championed by philosophers such as David Benatar and “efilist” Gary Mosher, views anti-natalism as a global solution to the problem of suffering. Precisely how this global solution would work is unclear. All humans, secular and religious alike, would need to be persuaded not to have children. How? “Accidents” would need to be prevented too. How? Even universal human childlessness would not solve the problem of nonhuman animal suffering. So presumably some e.g. cobalt-salted multi-gigaton Doomsday device would need to be constructed to help sterilise the biosphere, possibly in conjunction with multiple independently-targeted gene drives to sabotage the metabolism of keystone species of phytoplankton in the oceans.

    In my view, “strong” anti-natalism is misguided. Voluntary childlessness cannot solve the problem of suffering. David Benatar ignores the nature of selection pressure (cf. 'The harm of coming into existence’ by David Benatar). Likewise, “apocalyptic” solutions aren’t sociologically credible. Inescapably, the future belongs to life lovers.

    So are we doomed to endless suffering? Maybe. Darwinian life is both vicious and tenacious. But the CRISPR gene-editing revolution means that the entire biosphere is now programmable. There is no technical reason why we can’t use biotechnology to create a world based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling could soon mitigate the burden of human suffering. The in vitro meat revolution and synthetic gene drives could soon prevent untold nonhuman animal suffering too.

    I won’t live to see it, but transhumanists believe the future of life is wonderful, and perhaps sublime.

  • What are your thoughts on anti-natalism?
  • An adequate theory of value should be as true in the gas chambers of Auschwitz as in the philosopher’s study. In my view, Darwinian life is an abomination: life on Earth is virulent, self-replicating biological malware churning out suffering without end. Any sensitive soul should be appalled. Cruelty as vile as anything in Auschwitz is going on right now (cf. Can you come up with some convincing ways in which some of the most evil actions in the world could be justified?).

    Almost a million people each year do draw the relevant conclusion: “we are creatures that should not exist" (David Benatar). By contrast, for evolutionary reasons many more human and nonhuman animals alike go to extraordinary lengths not just to survive but to breed – and hence perpetuate the obscenity of our existence.

    Among the life-denying minority, a small percentage of believers in suffering-focused ethics actively seek to solve the problem of suffering, not just for themselves but for all of humanity, and indeed all sentience. Among this minority of a minority, a broad consensus exists. Nonviolent policy options are wise, indeed mandatory (cf. Why would someone want to end humanity?). It’s not that sterilising the planet, or at least eliminating multicellular life, is technically infeasible. Blueprints exist. Rather, deploying the tools to eradicate multicellular life would require a consensus of state-actors that is simply never going to happen. Maybe a few decades from now, individual initiatives will be conceivable. IMO, they should be strongly discouraged. Our aim should be raising ethical awareness, not devising a training manual for super-terrorists (cf. Is genetic engineering (CRISPR, gene drives, etc.) advanced enough to kill or save billions of people?).

    One candidate solution to the problem of suffering is to engineer human extinction via radical anti-natalism. Radical anti-natalists don't just take the personal decision not to have children, or urge reduced population sizes to minimise human ecological impact. Ambitiously, radical anti-natalists hope to persuade everyone, everywhere, not to have children.
    I discuss the utter hopelessness of this solution here:
    What are the arguments against anti-natalism?
    In summary, I respect anyone’s personal decision to stay childless or adopt. Let’s hope more people follow suit. Yet “extinctionist” anti-natalism is in denial about the nature of selection pressure.

    Alternatives?
    Intuitively, there are none. The hedonic treadmill is often treated as though it were akin to the second law of thermodynamics. Yet what if all prospective parents could cheaply and easily choose the hedonic range, hedonic set-points, and pain-sensitivity of their future offspring? In short, what if technical fixes existed to defang, and then abolish, the problem?

    At first blush, this sounds a crazy idea: idle “what if” sci-fi. Creating a hyperthymic civilisation sounds almost as impractical as global anti-natalism. But CRISPR genome-editing, synthetic gene drives, and the new technologies of reproductive medicine will shortly turn the level of suffering in the biosphere into an adjustable parameter. Bioethicists need to acquaint themselves with what's technically feasible (cf. Genetically designing a happy biosphere).

    What daunts me personally aren’t the purely technical obstacles to getting rid of suffering. My heart sinks instead at meeting the sociological and political challenges the biohappiness revolution entails. Thus answering questions on Quora is orders of magnitude easier than politically organising and lobbying for change. How can we best win “hearts and minds” in a bioconservative world still wedded, in the main, to the biological-genetic status quo? Consequently, my best guess is that hundreds of years of involuntary suffering still lie ahead – maybe millennia. In principle, I’m a button-pressing negative utilitarian (NU) who would “walk away from Omelas” (cf. What are the main differences between the anti-natalism / efilism community and the negative utilitarian / "suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?). Yet for technical reasons, I reckon that the future of life in the universe is probably gradients of superhuman bliss.

    The critical point, as I see it, is simple. Unlike radical anti-natalism, the project of reprogramming the biosphere to phase out suffering isn't fatally vulnerable to the argument from selection pressure. On the contrary. As the reproductive revolution of "designer babies" gathers pace, selection pressure against genes / allelic combinations predisposing to misery and malaise will intensify (cf. The Reproductive Revolution - selection pressure in a post-Darwinian world). After all, if you could choose, what hedonic dial-settings would you choose for your kids? Crudely, how many prospective parents want depressive pain-ridden “losers”?

    Either way, the future belongs to life lovers. Natalists and anti-natalists alike should act accordingly.

  • 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.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9928438
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2390776/

    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:
    http://www.nature.com/news/pet-dogs-set-to-test-anti-ageing-drug-1.16237

    Future radical life-extension technologies will presumably be used by affluent ultra-long-lived humans for their nonhuman 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.

  • Has David Pearce signed up for cryonics?
  • No. I agree with David Benatar: “We are creatures that should not exist.” Nonetheless, when I notice the first signs of cognitive decline, I may opt for cryothanasia rather than a Brompton cocktail.

    Where? Either in a country where euthanasia is lawful, or an offshore facility (cf. Seasteading).

    Why? Despite my negative utilitarianism (NU) and scepticism about enduring personal identity, the idea of waking up in the glorious Year 3000 is seductive. On reanimation, my namesake would presumably realise that NU, efilism and even “normal” human consciousness are a kind of depressive psychosis. Post-Darwinian life is self-intimatingly wonderful! No, my namesake wouldn’t really be me. But then nor is the guy who respawns tomorrow morning bearing my name and credit-card bills.

    When? I don’t know exactly. The shelf-life of philosophers tends to be slightly longer than that of mathematicians. An ethical vegan diet is also neuroprotective; compare the fate of demented flesh-eaters (cf. Daily salads delay dementia). So perhaps in a decade or so. Growing old is a mistake.

    I say a bit more in “On Cryonics and Cryothanasia

    POSTSCRIPT ADDED FEB. 2018.
    Yes! Prodded I confess by friends, I am now signed up with Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Especial thanks to reclusive philanthropist James Evans, who handled the paperwork. Why would a negative utilitarian who believes that Darwinian life is virulent malware, and whose conception of personal identity is in any case insanely "thin", sign up for cryonics? Incipient senility? Delusions of grandeur? Am I worried that some grieving relative or loved one might otherwise hurl themselves upon my funeral pyre?

    Not exactly. Transhumanists urge the conquest of death and aging. Bereavement, grief and fear of mortality are among the worst sources of human suffering. Barring some unforeseen medical breakthrough, or a highly speculative AI Intelligence Explosion or Technological Singularity, mature humans alive today won’t witness the transition to post-aging civilisation (cf. SENS Research Foundation). Darwinian life is almost unfailingly cruel. Tantalisingly, later next century and beyond, our transhuman descendants may well enjoy lifelong (super-)happiness and quasi-eternal youth. By contrast, most if not all early twenty-first century humans are destined to crumble away and perish. If implemented, however, a stopgap regime of opt-out cryonics, and opt-in cryothanasia, can potentially defang death for secular rationalists, and even offer a backup insurance policy for religious believers. Therefore political lobbying for regulatory change should be a priority. If successful, then visiting absent loved ones in the cryonics tank can become the norm rather than the exception. Well-known transhumanists such as Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg have already taken the lead. Transhumanists should set an example and practise what we preach.

    Admittedly, my sympathies still lie more with physicist Hugh Everett, who thought his ashes should be “thrown out with the trash”, rather than with classical utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who lives on as an “auto-icon”. Yet for better or worse, the elderly namesake of one of the world’s handful of negative utilitarians may end up in Alcor’s Patient Care Bay in Scottsdale, Arizona. I opted for neurosuspension rather than a whole-body job.

    I’ve mixed feelings about conserving Darwinian humans for other reasons. As long as humans systematically abuse and murder billions of sentient beings in the death factories, the idea of preserving the killers and their accomplices feels almost surreal. Yet I can’t see any downside. Cryonics and ethically veganising the world aren’t mutually exclusive. Both veganism and cryonic suspension involve respect for life.

    Can one offer any comforting words for grieving relatives today whose deceased parents or late partner didn’t sign up for reanimation? Telling the grief-stricken that Darwinian consciousness is a toxic psychosis wouldn’t bring them any solace. My normal patter in such tragic situations is that no one ever really gets deleted from space-time / Hilbert space. For better or worse, our co-ordinates in reality never change. And for those who don't believe in the block-universe conception of time, perhaps modern cosmology offers the secular equivalent of resurrection of the flesh: shades of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.
    An exhilarating or depressing prospect?
    You can probably guess my view.

  • What is the difference between perception and consciousness?
  • “Thus the existence of a real object outside me is never given directly in perception, but can only be added in thought to what is a modification of inner sense as its external cause, and hence can only be inferred.”
    (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1781) “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
    (Edgar Allan Poe)
    None. Or rather, perceptual consciousness is the sub-category of conscious experience that naive realists identify with the mind-independent world. Five broad sub-categories of perceptual consciousness are conventionally distinguished: the senses of taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing.

    "Perception" is a useful word. It’s also systematically misleading. This is because the term suggests that each of us enjoys direct access to our local surroundings, including one’s extra-cranial body. "Cross-modally matched real-time egocentric world-simulation" might be more apt; alas, it’s a bit of a mouthful. Either way, the external environment may be inferred; it’s not accessed. The mind-independent world powerfully selects the subjective content of one’s waking world-simulation; the mind-independent world doesn’t create it.

    Perhaps compare immersive VR or dreaming, especially lucid dreaming. “Perceptual" experience during dreams is (almost) uncontroversially mind-dependent. While you are dreaming, virtual rocks and mountains, virtual chairs and tables, and your virtual body-image (etc) are properties of your conscious mind – patterns of neuronal firings in the CNS. Dreams may be intensely lifelike. However, you can't read the text of virtual books while dreaming, nor use a virtual calculator to multiply ten-digit numbers. If you want to check whether you might be dreaming, you can test.

    What happens when you wake up?

    Perceptual direct realists believe that, upon waking, the virtual sunsets and virtual symphonies and virtual body-images of their dreamworlds are somehow replaced by direct access to their extra-cranial surroundings. By contrast, inferential realists about perception recognise that their "awakened" minds still consist, for the most part, of a world-simulation run by the CNS. Unlike dreamworld consciousness, your waking world-simulation typically consists of a tightly law-governed virtual universe that causally covaries with your local extra-cranial environment and extra-cranial body. Thus right now, you can read the text of virtual books, and use a virtual calculator to perform feats beyond the cognitive capacity of human toddlers and nonhuman animals. In other words, inferential realism is not a sceptical or solipsistic stance. Also, unlike life in your dreams, stepping in front of a virtual bus when you are awake will bring your world-simulation to a definitive end.
    [well, normally]

  • 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 quantum mechanics ignore logic?
  • No. The decoherence program of post-Everett quantum mechanics explains the emergence of quasi-classical worlds in which an approximation of classical logic holds good. Thus "we" can say that Donald Trump won the US presidential election and Hillary Clinton lost, just as our counterparts (hopefully of higher measure) in other Everett branches say that Donald Trump lost and Hilary Clinton won.

    Does the lack of any unambiguous branch structure of the wavefunction of the universe mean that classical logic should be discarded? No, but "we" may have to accept that folk notions of meaning, reference and truth are just parochial.

  • Does the mind depend on the brain for its existence? When the brain ceases to exist, does the mind cease to exist?
  • “Brains”, as commonly understood, are mind-dependent artifacts of our phenomenal world-simulations. These squidgy lumps of neural porridge occasionally feature in one’s virtual world. “Brains” loom more prominently in the virtual worlds of neurosurgeons; but they are still artifacts of the mind. Wet grey lumps of nervous tissue are sometimes imagined to secrete first-person experience (epiphenomenalism) or be identical with it (cf. The Mind/Brain Identity Theory). Perhaps compare the religious doctrine of transubstantiation. “Brains” have no existence outside the waking or dreaming consciousness of minds.

    So is reality mind-dependent?
    No.
    Empirical science (as distinct from metaphysics masquerading as science) still doesn’t know whether the world’s primordial quantum fields are, in essence, fields of sentience (non-materialist physicalism) or insentience (materialist physicalism), or a bizarre hybrid of both. Whatever the true answer, the great bulk of the stuff of reality isn’t part of any conscious mind or phenomenal world-simulation it runs.

    Moreover, a belief that reality is mind-dependent can be hazardous to one’s health. Perceptual direct realism is a fitness-enhancing delusion. Thus within your waking world-simulation, care should be taken crossing virtual roads. One false step and both you and your world-simulation may come to an abrupt conclusion

  • 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.

  • What are some books on physicalism (materialism)? Who are some physicalist philosophers?
  • Reductive materialism = science.
    Holistic idealism = woolly-minded philosophy.
    It's a tempting dichotomy.
    However, physicalists needn't be materialists or reductionists.
    For instance, some non-materialist physicalists (cf. "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?") are also wavefunction monists (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/hilbertspace.pdf).
    Unlike materialism and reductionism, monistic idealism in its contemporary physicalist guise is consistent with the empirical evidence.
    Is it true?
    I don't know.

    For a good overview of orthodox (i.e. "materialist") physicalism, perhaps see Daniel Stoljar, “Physicalism”, Routledge, 2010: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
    And for radical eliminativist materialism, I guess anything by Daniel Dennett (cf. Daniel Dennett’s "Science of the Soul": http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/daniel-dennetts-science-of-the-soul).

  • 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; and (2) how consciousness could have the causal efficacy to allow us to discuss its existence; and (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; and (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. https://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. 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.
    Fortunately, experiment ("an experimentally testable conjecture") 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.
    The Penrose Orch-OR theory, like all stories invoking observer-induced state vector reduction, entails modifying or supplementing the unitary dynamics. But in Penrose's approach, quantum state reduction is a gravitational phenomenon. However, no departure from the unitary Schrödinger 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 Schrödinger equation. Classicality is an emergent phenomenon. Wojciech Zurek offers a good overview of the decoherence programme e.g. here:
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1412.5206v1.pdf

  • 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.

  • Do we have to follow the Hedonistic Imperative as a lifestyle by David Pearce?
  • What does the term “hedonism” evoke in your mind? A life of drink, drugs and debauchery? Happiness that is shallow, one-dimensional and amoral? Maybe the pursuit of pleasure that is meaningless, short-lived or vaguely unsatisfying – a life of “empty hedonism”? Henry Sidgwick in The Method of Ethics (1874) speaks aptly of the paradox of hedonism, i.e. the pursuit of personal pleasure can be self-defeating. Many critics agree with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson: the answer to suffering is meaning, rather than eradication of suffering.

    A technical revolution is going to transform this debate. The past 540 million years of evolution via natural selection have been a story of unimaginable suffering. CRISPR genome-editing, synthetic gene drives, novel reproductive technologies, and an imminent mastery of our reward circuitry promise a hedonic revolution: a major evolutionary transition in the development of life on Earth (cf. Is suffering a necessary part of the human condition?). In theory, the hedonic floor of posthuman life can surpass the human hedonic ceiling. If the hedonic range of Darwinian life is, schematically, -10 to 0 to +10, the posthuman hedonic range may extend from, say, +90 to +100. Or if a deeper hedonic contrast is judged wise, say +70 to +100. These numbers are conventional though not arbitrary. We simply don’t know how the biohappiness revolution will play out.

    Life underpinned by superhuman hedonic tone is clearly “hedonistic” in one sense of the term. Yet genetically ratcheting up hedonic set-points and hedonic range has nothing to do with prescribing anyone a lifestyle. Perhaps, for some, posthuman life will be one big party, or even a multibillion-year orgy. I’m prudishly sceptical of such scenarios. But who knows? Anyone confident in their powers of prediction would do well to study the history of futurology. At the other extreme, posthuman life may witness instead the triumph of Mill’s “higher pleasures”. For example, if you are a cerebral mathematician whose greatest happiness in life is proving mathematical theorems, then a seriously enriched reward circuitry needn’t change your austere lifestyle – or indeed the lifestyle of transhuman and posthuman mathematicians. Maybe (like me) you’d rather gaze at cute snaggle-toothed bunny rabbits than contemplate Euler’s identity (cf. After an irreversible transition to a blissful existence with boundless cognitive, physical and transcendental euphoria, what would you do?). Even if so, the point still stands. Radically enriched hedonic tone can leave your core values, preference architecture and lifestyle optionally intact. In practice, life and society will be revolutionised as the biohappiness revolution unfolds. Hedonic recalibration and enhancement shouldn’t be viewed as somehow coercive.