physicalism, consciousness, the binding problem, superintelligence, suffering, transhumanism, a zero ontology
JANUARY 2014 - DECEMBER 2014[on Adam Ford's transhumanist video series]
Perhaps the idyllic backdrop of Melbourne Botanical Gardens is not the ideal setting to evoke the horrors of Darwinian life:
(videos - with thanks to Adam Ford)
Apparently, one or two critics hoped I was going to swat the delinquent fly. High-tech Jainism bites the dust! Fortunately, no lives were lost in the production - to my knowledge, at any rate.
Adam, I wonder to what extent (most) people's opposition to compassionate intervention stems not from true ethical/ideological principle but simple status quo bias. Imagine that some billionaire philanthropist or enlightened state government does create an African Garden of Eden. Will visitors to such a utopian wildlife park start complaining that the lions aren't tearing zebra to shreds; they'd prefer to see some hunger and starvation; and where are the Anopheles mosquitoes and tsetse flies? Either way, it's wonderful that you're making these videos to raise awareness of the issues. Currently, a majority of folk still unreflectively assume, echoing Richard Dawkins, "it must be so" - a misunderstanding of both biotechnology and modal logic.
* * *
Few opponents of the transhumanist agenda are prepared to take the logic of their own position seriously. Ethically speaking, if there is really something intrinsically good about the existence of involuntary suffering, predation, hunger, depression, aging, cognitive frailties (etc), then shouldn't we seek deliberately to (re-)introduce such phenomena in their absence? In fairness to bioconservatives, our more intelligent critics don't dismiss the aspiration to a better world out of hand. Rather, such commentators focus on the risks - and the likelihood of everything all going horribly wrong. History suggests that here the critics are on much firmer ground.
* * *
Thanks Adam. I still haven't found anybody who says "yes", i.e. they would urge the supercivilisation in question to reintroduce these horrors. Such status quo bias holds even for folk who've spent the past hour vehemently defending the Darwinian regime of life on Earth today. Of course, I'm sure such reactionaries exist. But by common consent, the proposal is perverse if not crazy.
Actually, I should qualify the generalisation above. Few people would argue we should reintroduce the vanished miseries of Darwinian life under that description. Yet a significant minority of futurists say they would opt to run an "ancestor simulation". It's unclear how these two responses can be reconciled. Will a decision on whether a supercivilisation decides to re-enact the horrors of Darwinian life / run cool-sounding ancestor simulations really turn on how the proposal is framed by posthuman policy-makers? Such a momentous decision seems unlikely to turn on anything so flimsy.
A refutation of the Simulation Argument?
No. Contrary to what one sometimes reads, Nick Bostrom does not argue we are probably living in an ancestor-simulation.
* * *
Emulating the Borg
("Naturalised Telepathy and the Hive Mind")
IMO we need a Decision Theoretic FAQ for the Borg, so to speak. If we had Borg-like cognitive capacities, i.e. perfect knowledge of all the first-person and third-person facts, then much of human behaviour would seem like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. In short, irrational.
* * *
The Good Gene Guide
("David Pearce - Feeling Groovy: Genetic Interventions & Wonder Drugs")
Thanks Adam. I have sublime peak experiences; you feel groovy; he gets high. The names we give for what makes life worthwhile vary in connotation. But I think the critical clue to the future of life in the universe lies in two cubic-centimetre-sized "hedonic hotspots" deep within the brain.
* * *
One needn't be a Buddhist, a pain specialist or a negative utilitarian to believe our overriding moral responsibility is to reduce suffering. Yet some derisive critics of HI respond that the most effective way to end suffering would be to bump everyone off, or indeed sterilise the whole planet - allowing a supremely compassionate ethic to be tarred by apocalyptic associations of death and destruction. What's the answer? Like all simplistic slogans or watchwords, "High-tech Jainism" isn't perfect. But when flying under that banner, one is less likely to be accused of plotting Armageddon.
Clfh, just as the medical administration of morphine can detach suffering from a pain sensation ("I can still feel the pain, but it doesn't trouble me any more", the patient reports), some Buddhist meditators can apparently achieve a similar feat. Yet like surgery without anaesthesia, lesser mortals and nonhuman animals can't go under the knife without undergoing extraordinary distress. And sadly, Buddhist meditation does not recalibrate the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill or dismantle the horrors of the food chain.
* * *
A superintelligent classical utilitarian who obliterates our civilisation with a utilitarian shockwave isn't a moral agent in the conventional sense of the term. What remains to be shown is whether empathetic moralists like us are effective altruists - or simply variants on the compassionate elderly widow who leaves her ten-million-dollar fortune to her cat.
* * *
("Genetically engineered for enlightenment? | Genetic Literacy Project")
"I am a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy."
We need more conspirators.
Should neuroscience be hedonistic?
("Should neuroscience be hedonistic?")
"Jacking up heroin" and "Buddhist nirvana" might be different expressions denoting the same experience - pure bliss without desire.
By contrast, wireheading is almost pure desire - a frenzy of anticipated reward. On the Buddhist equation of suffering with desire, wireheading should be hell.
It's not, of course...
* * *
Timescales of The Hedonistic Imperative (video)
The Future of Well-Being (video)
Thanks Ariel. Presumably the claim that the world's last unpleasant experience in our forward light-cone will be a precisely dateable event is trivially true. It's an interesting (and quite possibly false) prediction only if that event is dated a few centuries away - rather than millions or billions of years hence, as we might naively suppose.
Thanks Martin. Futurists are fond of exploring the implications of exponential growth. However, one kind of exponential growth is almost unimaginable: the growth in subjective well-being conferred by imminent mastery of our reward circuitry. Whether what's technically feasible is sociologically credible is very much an open question.
Martyn, I'm as sceptical as you are of any sort of "Technological Singularity". But technologies like immunocontraception, preimplantation genetic screening, neuorochipping, GPS tracking and monitoring and so forth are scarcely science fiction. They are here already! And now comes the CRISPR genome-editing revolution and gene drives. If we ever do aim for global biohappiness - or simply fulfilment of the World Health Organisation's pledge to promote "complete physical, mental and social well-being" - then there's no need to invoke revolutionary Star Trek warp drives or some other kind of deus ex machina, just incremental progress - and recognisable extensions of existing technologies.
* * *
("David Pearce on Existential and Global Catastrophic Risks")
I'm pessimistic about our prospects of avoiding nuclear war this century - probably a "local" war but perhaps a theatre or global thermonuclear war. Even global thermonuclear war probably falls into the "global catastrophic risk" rather than existential risk category. The prospect is still frightful. One of the biggest challenges is coming up with ideas for world peace that are not just technologically feasible but sociologically credible. All-female governance might avoid war but falls into the "not sociologically credible" category. A sovereign democratically elected UN with a monopoly on the use of force might seem to fall into "not sociologically credible" category too. After all, national leaders aren't voluntarily going to give up power in the cause of world peace. Instead, I'd urge lobbying national legislatures to enact a "sunset clause" that kicks in several decades hence that vests sovereign authority in the UN. It's easy - or at least less difficult - for politicians to be statesmanlike about issues relevant only after any plausible date for their retirement.
Did human intelligence evolve to wage war?
("Like Collaboration And Intelligence In Humans? Thank War")
Does your reproductive strategy owe more to Genghis Khan or OkCupid?
("The biological spoils of war: Study finds those who take part in violent conflict have more wives, children")
* * *
Martyn, our world can support only a tiny fraction of all conceivable life-forms. In this immense state-space of options, why choose species whose members are predisposed to hurt, harm and kill other sentient beings? Ethically speaking, do you favour conserving or recreating human ethnic groups whose way of life turns on enslaving, eating or waging war on others? Let's at least try to be consistent. "Mass extinction" sounds excitingly apocalyptic. "The civilising process" is duller - and perhaps more accurate.
Kate, David Benatar argues that coming into existence is inherently harmful. Human extinction via voluntary childlessness is ethically desirable. But he doesn't advocate killing anyone. The problem is that selection pressure, if nothing else, guarantees that voluntary childlessness as a solution to the problem of suffering doesn't work. Choosing not to have kids - or adopting them - creates selection pressure in favour of the feckless, the reckless and religious folk who think they should go forth and multiply. So it's quite possible that someone who agrees with David Benatar's bleak diagnosis, but dissents from his ineffective remedy, will in future attempt an apocalyptic solution that might actually work - though I suspect the upshot would simply be more suffering. It's the same with negative utilitarianism. The negative utilitarian believes that we have an overriding ethical obligation to mitigate and prevent suffering. Some of us also believe - on indirect negative utilitarian grounds - that the principle of sanctity of life should prudently be enshrined in law. But in future, what's to say that some misguided negative utilitarian won't seek to short-circuit the complex, costly and uncertain project of phasing out the biology of suffering with more drastic options? Developments in biotechnology and artificial intelligence - together with older WMD - mean that such scenarios can't be dismissed as fanciful. Once again, I fear the probable outcome would be more suffering, not its eradication.
* * *
Are factory-farming and slaughterhouses the greatest threat to the welfare of sentient beings? Evan, I'd interpreted Rob's question as about present and future risks to existing sentient beings. Otherwise, I agree with you. Also, a presupposition of Rob's question is that Benatarians ("Better never to have been") are mistaken. The existence of some exceedingly smart potential "button pushers" ought to make anyone who is worried about existential risk - in the diametrically opposite sense of the term - hope that Eliezer is wrong. ("Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.")
* * *
We strive for an impartial God's-eye-view in science. Should we do the same in ethics and decision-theoretic rationality? Assume all the relevant first-person and third-person facts. In a burning building or lifeboat scenario, should we rescue the victims on the basis of whether they belong to the same class, or sexual orientation, or whether they can verbally assert self-ownership, or ethnic group, or IQ score or whatever as the rescuers? Or on the impartial basis of their comparative sentience? I worry, however, that even posing this question obscures a more basic point. Even if one is an outright human supremacist (or white supremacist, etc) who doesn't believe in the principle of equal consideration of interests, this self-avowed bias doesn't thereby entitle one to harm lesser beings for frivolous reasons, e.g. "But I like the taste!"
[on 'La revolución antiespecista']
A strong Spanish translation of "The Antispeciesist Revolution" by leading effective altruist Pablo Stafforini. Many thanks Pablo!
La revolución antiespecista
The English orginal is here:
The Antispeciesist Revolution
Alas Google Translate wasn't quite up to the challenge.
[on transhumanism in Korea]
Transhumanism in Korea
"애벌레가 세상의 끝이라고 부르는 그 것을 우리는 나비라고 부른다."
(“What a caterpillar calls the end of the world, we call a butterfly”)
Talk of "metamorphosis" and "enhancement" (etc), and metaphors involving butterflies and chrysalis (etc), scares most people less than prophecies of human extinction. But yes, archaic Homo sapiens probably won't be around for much longer. A huge gulf nonetheless exists between conceptions of posthuman superintelligence conceived as our IT-enhanced biological descendants and IJ Good-inspired speculations that biological humans will be replaced by digital superintelligence. In my view, digital zombies are unlikely ever to be more than tools of full-spectrum superintelligences like our biological descendants. [Mature nonbiological quantum computers? Too difficult. I don't know.]
[on the future of pleasure]
"I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point." (Anders Sandberg)
What is the ideal hedonic set-point? And in the postgenomic era, what should be the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range?
No End of Pleasure (BBC Radio 4)
("No End of Pleasure")
Now available online. It would seem my graphic descriptions of posthuman orgies have been cut: Podcast
* * *
The Anders quote? Henry. here I believe:
Anders and I have chatted about hedonic set-points. But he's never to my knowledge written a paper on the topic. Of course one doesn't want to personalise the topic unduly. But there's a risk that simply talking in the abstract about life based on gradients of intelligent bliss can sound like remote sci-fi to many people. A personable, highly intelligent, pro-social researcher like Andres makes the idea more concrete. Mind you, even Anders is just a faint foretaste of what will be technically feasible in future...
* * *
The hedonistic imperative?
("Why Men Love Lingerie: Rat Study Offers Hints")
("Study proves high heels do have power over men")
* * *
When will rational drug design replace serendipity?
("Designer Drug Users Could Stumble onto Cures for Mental Disorders")
* * *
Dave, even if one were to argue (controversially!) that all books have some positive value, there is an opportunity cost to reading one - because one can only read a tiny fraction of the books ever published in a lifetime. Likewise, in any future library of emotions, even if one were to argue (controversially) that all emotions have some positive value, there is an opportunity cost to undergoing one - because one can only undergo a tiny fraction of the emotions in a lifetime. Actually, IMO many books were best never written and many emotions best never accessed. Let's aim for variations on the sublime and stay there - but only after we have discharged all our ethical responsibilities in the multiverse. This means developing full-spectrum superintelligence.
Peter, despite the CRISPR genome-editing revolution that's exploded over the past two years, editing the genomes of existing advanced organisms is still much harder than using preimplantation genetic screening to choose alleles implicated in a high hedonic set-point for new organisms - not least for our prospective children. However, even here I'm leaping the gun. Awareness of hedonic set-points and the hedonic treadmill has grown in recent years, but only a relatively small number or research teams are working on their genetic basis. And critically, only a handful of theorists are canvassing any kind of long-term global biohappiness project. One reason, I guess, is the notion is so counter-intuitive. If notionally offered either a lottery win and a date with the girl/guy or their dreams OR a sizeable boost to their hedonic set-point, then most people - I don't know what percentage - would probably opt for the former. Hedonic set-point recalibration sounds barely more interesting than domestic plumbing - though it's the recipe for a sustainably enriched quality of life.
* * *
Joseph, just relax and enjoy life sounds sensible. But let's think back to the African savannah, From a gene's eye view, creating a survival machine who is restless, discontented and always seeking out more status, mates, reproductive opportunities (etc) is a more effective way to create lots of copies of itself than creating relaxed folk who count their blessings. Sadly. the evidence (twin studies etc) suggests that each of us has a genetically constrained maximum hedonic set-point that we can't surpass without biological interventions. Of course, some people - though poor diet, lack of exercise, a dysfunctional social and family environment or simple bad luck - never reach their maximum hedonic potential.
Stefano, information-sensitive hedonic dips are indeed functionally analogous to suffering. Without them, it's hard to see how critical insight, social responsibility and intellectual progress could be sustained. But they don't need to be phenomenally sub-zero to play an information-bearing role - any more than the hedonic dips of love-making are unpleasant. They aren't as intensely pleasurable, for sure. But that's very different from suffering. Such a claim isn't just idle theory either. Perhaps consider someone like transhumanist scholar and existential risk researcher Anders Sandberg ("I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point").
Mark, yes, it's hard to overstate the difference in the quality of life between people with a high and low hedonic set-point. Given its high degree of genetic loading, the disparity was simply a fact of life - until recently. If we are looking for cheap, cost-effective interventions that will boost the quality of life of sentient beings this century and beyond, then ubiquitous provision of preimplantation genetic screening and genetic counselling should rank highly. Together with funding the breakneck development and commercialisation of cheap gourmet in vitro meat products (technical solutions to moral problems), we could dramatically reduce the burden of suffering in the world.
* * *
Adam, the moral urgency of phasing out the more extreme forms of suffering rightly takes precedence over getting rid of boredom, trivial inconvenience and mild unpleasantness. But I know of know technical reason why the worst aspects of post-human life can't surpass today's peak experiences.
Stefano, I presume we want to "carve Nature at the joints" (rather than use some kind of gerrymandered and pre-scientific "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things" -type ontology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women,_Fire,_and_Dangerous_Things) The distinction between subjects of experience who have interests and mere insentient aggregates is conceptually fundamental. The distinction doesn't depend on the ascriptive practices of any particular culture. Either way, apologies, I'm still not entirely clear. Do you believe that as a long-term goal we should be aiming at the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone - where for now "well-being" is left undefined - or not?
Stefano, well, it's true I get the same jolt to the sensibilities seeing a pig strung up in a butcher's window as you would seeing a butchered toddler strung up there instead. But that wasn't the point I was making. Whether our sympathies lie more with a libertarian vision of a "night-watchman state" or a Scandinavian-style welfare state, the rule of law - and some sort of mechanism to enforce it - is vital to civilisation. The legally guaranteed right for sentient beings to live physically unmolested would rank high in my list of priorities to underwrite any civilisation worthy of the name. Would it yours?
* * *
Let's assume - though this assumption can be challenged - that individual neurons can instantiate rudimentary micro-experiences. Thus for example a particular kind of dedicated neuron in the striate cortex if activated in the right way can mediate a particular hue of micro-redness even if cultured in vitro. If so, what is the distinctive texture of experience mediated by individual neurons in our tiny twin "hedonic hotspots"?
* * *
One or two subtleties are omitted, but shorter than my screed:
("Meet Your Happy Chemicals")
(Nitrous Oxide as a fast-acting antidepressant)
("Laughing" rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?")
* * *
Let's hope "binge-mitigation agents" have a glorious future:
("High and dry? Party drug could target excess drinking")
* * *
Michael, our opioidergic and dopamine systems are so intimately interconnected that disentangling their respective contribution to our states of mind can be hard. But we'll want to distinguish the complete cessation of desire induced by e.g. mainlining heroin (cf. Buddhist "nirvana") with an urgent dopaminergic sense of things-to-be-done - perhaps culminating in a exhilarating frenzy of desire and anticipation ("wireheading").
I'm sceptical that the normative aspect of experience on the pleasure-pain axis is idiosyncratic to me - as distinct from extravagant-sounding proposals for its cosmic generalisation. Compare: whether electrode-induced or otherwise, if you're gripped by a sense of uncontrollable panic, then the normative aspect of the experience is built into its very nature of the state itself.
Daryl, is pure bliss really impossible? Composite, hedonically "mixed " states are common. But just as some states of mind are simply nasty, others would seem simply nice - which doesn't mean to say they can't be enriched and intensified.
* * *
What are the upper bounds to rational agency?
Instead of being Godlike, might posthuman superintelligence still be almost impotent:
[on Transhumanist Bodhisattvas]
("The Transhumanist Bodhisattvas")
Like reading of some saintly paragon of Christian virtue caught in bed with a couple of hookers, a normal reader will hope these transhumanist bodhisattvas have a few redeeming vices. More seriously, should we be aiming as a civilisation for greater empathy for other sentient beings? Or greater systematising prowess? In individuals, at least, there is often a trade-off between these two cognitive styles: Bill Gates is not as empathetic as a Mother Theresa - or as a compassionate-minded Buddhist - but who is the more effective altruist? [The money helps too, of course. Boundless compassion for all sentient creatures is a better recipe for destitution rather than business success.]
Empirical studies suggest many people hate generosity as much as they hate mean-spiritedness. How can this response to Effective Altruism best be blunted or defused?
("Too good to live")
* * *
Any EA persuaded by the IJ Good / MIRI / Bostrom conception of an imminent nonbiological Intelligence Explosion is likely to biological-genetic approaches to phasing out involuntary suffering painfully slow. Hundreds of years, at least, would seem a technically credible time-scale. Sociologically, who knows? However, the CRISPR genome-editing revolution illustrates how organic robots may turn out to be capable of rapid recursive self-improvement too. In the meantime, I think offering free preimplantation genetic screening for any prospective parents who want it would be cost-effective in every sense. A genetic predisposition to low mood, for example, can be at least as devastating to quality of life as, say, cystic fibrosis.
Mike, sorry for the pessimism. So long as sentient beings reproduce "naturally" - without the use of preimplantation genetic screening, let alone genetic tweaking - a biology of suffering and malaise would seem inevitable. Promising either doom or salvation within the plausible lifetime of one's audience has been critical to the success of radical social movements throughout history. By contrast, I was just giving my own candid guess about time-scales. Sometimes I wonder if there is a case for just biting one's tongue instead. What's your sense of credible time-scales? My "hundreds of years" figure was meant in the last case-of-smallpox-was in-Somalia-in-1977 sense. Whether the date of the last experience below hedonic zero is centuries or millennia away - or whether it will endure for billions of years more - is clearly speculative.
* * *
"Faith?" Well, as Santayana observed, belief in anything beyond solipsism-of-the-there-and-now tends to rest on "blind animal faith". But radical scepticism aside, there's nothing particularly faith-based about outlining technologies to mitigate - and perhaps abolish - suffering in biological organisms. What would amount to faith - or at least unwarranted optimism - is the confident prediction they will be used for that purpose. Maybe the biology of suffering and malaise will persist indefinitely.
* * *
Michael, I share your reservations about "positive psychology" (cf. the advantages of "defensive pessimism" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defensive_pessimism ) And a lot of early research into the "pleasure centres" failed to distinguish between mesolimbic dopaminergic desire and mu opioidergic bliss. But I think Kent Berridge (cf. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~berridge/) and his colleagues have made a persuasive case that maximal activation via full mu agonists of our twin "hedonic hotspots" in the ventral pallidum and rostral shell of the nucleus accumbens elicits pure bliss. These twin hedonic hotspots are around a cubic millimetre in size in rats; and around a cubic centimetre in size in humans. After we decipher the gene expression profile internal to these cells that makes them so special, then it should be possible massively to amplify and "overexpress" the substrates of pure bliss too - hopefully in a controlled fashion "painted on" to pro-social neocortical representations, and without the problems of physiological tolerance that plague opioid drug use. At the risk of hyperbole, I suspect the key to the long-term future of the universe within our cosmological horizon may lie within these neurons.
Mark, the abolitionist project deserves to be stripped down to its basic core - free from the personal or stylistic idiosyncrasies of any particular individual - and put in clear and simple language that anyone can read and (dis)agree with. One huge complication is that the scope of the project depends on our theory of consciousness. If, for example, you believe that digital computers or "uploads" can be conscious, or (like Eliezer Yudkowsky or Mike Lorrey) that nonhuman animals are insentient zombies, then your conception of the scope of the project will be different - insofar as you believe we should be aiming for the well-being of all sentience at all. Time for post-human emotions:
("Sadness lasts longer than other emotions")
[on the Grand Peace Challenge]
("Peace Grand Challenge")
Calling off our undeclared war against sentient beings from other species might be a start.
[on Jason Silva's "End of Suffering" video]
Phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is a precondition of any civilisation worthy of the name:
(The End Of Suffering
("The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how nanotechnology and genetic engineering will eliminate aversive experience from the living world...")
Such enthusiasm is more normally associated with football than bioethics. Yet Jason is right to be fired up at what biotech can deliver. If the rest of us world-weary sophisticates could imagine the prospect more vividly, then we'd be fired up too.
* * *
"Robots?" The criticism that phasing out the biology of unpleasant experience would turn us into emotionless zombies, or at very least reduce the diversity of human experience, is quite common. One thinks of the SSRIs today: SSRIs typically have a mood-flattening effect. However, other mood-brighteners intensify emotion and depth of feeling. MDMA is one example: we need safe and sustainable functional MDMA analogues. Contrast? Well, a life lived on a hedonic scale, crudely speaking, of -10 to 0 to +10 has more hedonic contrast than life lived on a hedonic scale of +1 to +10. But compare lived on a hedonic scale ranging from +70 to +100. Contrast can actually be sharpened if desired. Intelligent agents will shortly be able to modulate their intensity of feeling, set the upper and lower bounds of their hedonic range, and also calibrate their approximate hedonic set-points.
Psychedelics? Let's get the biology of invincible well-being sorted first before urging DMT and Shooms for all. Not everyone is ready to go AWOL from consensus reality.
Thanks Robert. A pleasant change from charges of plotting mass genocide against cuddly predators.
Adriana, I agree with you that severe depression is unimaginably worse than "mere" sadness. But they lie on a continuum. And if we could choose our hedonic range between, say, -10 to 0 to +10 as now or between +80 to +100, which range should we opt for? Critically, I think, we should be free to choose. No one should be forced to suffer against their will as today. Biotech promises to turn utopian dream into reality.
Steven, many thanks. Awareness of the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill has grown in recent years. But there is still no systematic scholarly research into safely and sustainably raising hedonic set-points - or upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range. Of course, if your family is caught up in the civil war in Syria, for example, then you'll have limited patience for a disquisition on raising hedonic set-points. But the ills experienced by billions of people world-wide are not the miseries of war or destitution.
* * *
Stefano, you write "Ma questo naturalmente non risolve il vero problema, che non è la sofferenza altrui, ma le proiezioni e l'iperestesia di chi propone queste soluzioni..." If you are in agony or despair, then your agony or despair matters a great deal! To be sure, a cynic or moral anti-realist might say that your suffering matters to you, but it doesn't matter to him. But let's not confuse a mere epistemological limitation with a deep metaphysical truth. For reasons we simply don't understand, it's an objective fact about the natural world that some states on the pleasure-pain axis matter a great deal. Normative force is built into the very nature of agony or despair: it's not an "open question" whether they are bad from the perspective of the victim. Thanks to biotech and IT, we'll shortly be able to banish the terrible experiences associated with hunger, asphyxiation, disembowelment - and eventually the entire biology of experience below Sidgwick's "hedonic zero". Abolition is technically feasible in human and nonhuman animals alike. So why conserve such ugly relics of the past when we can enjoy life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss instead?
* * *
Kosta, yes: we can envisage all sorts of possible defeaters. I find the technical objections, i.e. it's simply too difficult, least credible. The socio-political obstacles may prove harder and - who knows - insurmountable. However, let's assume for a moment that biotech really does grant us mastery of our emotions. We can choose everything from our own hedonic set-point to our own hedonic range. Yes, we should be wary of the fallacy of composition - in this case, of passing from the claim that, crudely speaking, sentient beings want happiness to the claim that all sentient beings want the happiness of all. But most people aren't actively malevolent. Rather grandly, we might even advance some sort of Principle of Weak Benevolence: if zero personal inconvenience is involved, then most of us have at least a weak preference for others to be happy rather than to suffer. A weak preference - perhaps even a very weak preference - is all that's needed for a happy outcome in an era of utopian technology. By contrast, if the biological substrates of well-being were somehow scarce, then all bets would be off. Mercifully, this doesn't seem to be the case. Another ground for cautious optimism is the simple inversion test. Describe any kind of social formation or ideal society. In most cases, a lot of people will say they'd prefer something radically different. However, describe a civilisation underpinned by a biology of intelligent bliss. Then ask people if they would urge its inhabitants to revert to a biology of involuntary suffering. Insofar as they accept the premises of the thought-experiment, most respondents find the idea of a reversion to miseries of the ancien régime to be absurd. Rightly so. It's getting there that's the challenge.
Kosta, intuitively you're right. But the empirical evidence turns popular intuitions upside down. Depressives tire readily; they give up easily; they catastrophise; and succumb to behavioural despair. By contrast, in time of crisis people with manic euphoria can display superhuman strength, resilience, pain tolerance, and motivation. I'd just flap my flippers and die. Clearly, we shouldn't be aiming for a biology of unipolar euphoric mania with all the havoc it brings. But our biological dial-settings for pleasure and motivation can be tweaked independently. We shouldn't imagine that life animated by gradients of information-sensitive bliss is like life spent on heroin.
Kosta, are some anticipated pains worse than any anticipated pleasures? With my normal mind-set, I want to say yes.
But compare how a rat will cross an electrified grid to gain the opportunity to self-stimulate his reward centres. Even ravenously hungry rats who haven't eaten for days won't normally cross an electrified grid. But the anticipated pleasure of wireheading is enough to drive them through the grid ordeal. (Perhaps compare the behaviour of some men throughout history towards nubile women).
Wireheading is "unnatural": intracranial self-stimulation shows no physiological tolerance and is uniformly rewarding. With the exception of scenarios like sensitive love-making, natural selection hasn't thrown up a motivational architecture of gradients of bliss - rare sports of Nature aside at any rate. So the obvious question to ask is why this might be so. A partial answer might be that Nature simply doesn't care one way or the other what signalling system it uses to get the job done. But this can't be the whole story. Another possibility is that some kind of adaptive biasing mechanism is at work. Crudely speaking, low mood - and chronic physical stress - is associated with behavioural suppression. It's a low risk, low reward strategy. By contrast, exalted mood and exuberant physical well-being is associated with approach rather than avoidance behaviour. It's a strategy for "winners": high risk, high reward. In future, insofar as we don't offload decision-making onto smart machines, we'll presumably want to make sure we preserve the functional analogues of depressive realism - unless, that is, we redesign the world so that euphoric realism is more apt. I don't know of any technical reason why we can't design virtual environments where it seems as though the world is constantly conspiring to help you. Today. the conspiracy usually seems to run the other way.
* * *
Thanks Patrick. Phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is technically feasible and ethically desirable. But is it sociologically credible? An end to suffering and malaise is impossible so long as humans reproduce "naturally" and decline to use even preimplantation genetic screening. This is a very thorny issue in the German-speaking world - less so in, say, China.
Riva. I think we face a real dilemma here. On the one hand, the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentience. (cf. http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/ ) On the other hand, an end to suffering is biologically impossible if we continue to reproduce "naturally", i.e. without even the use of preimplantation genetic screening, let alone germ-line editing. In the case of existing adult humans, the issue of informed consent is relatively straightforward. As Natasha says, no one should be forced to remedy/enhance - or not to remedy/enhance - their own genetic make-up, or their own minds, or their own bodies. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution (cf. "Genetically Engineering Almost Anything":
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/evolution/crispr-gene-drives/) promises a future of personal genome-editing for educated health-conscious consumers world-wide - at least when user-friendly software tools are developed and CRISPR-based technology matures.
* * *
Yet what should be the "default option" for our prospective children? What should be their genetic dial-settings for hedonic tone, propensity to age slowly/rapidly, and much else besides? We can already identify genes/allelic combinations implicated in a high hedonic set-point and a high pain-threshold, for example - both of which tend, other things being equal, to promote a higher quality of life. Should responsible parents aim to load the genetic dice in their future children's favour? Or should we aim to preserve today's genetic crapshoot?
Zygotes can't choose anything.
And at this point, especially in front of a German audience, someone will mention the dreaded "e" word...
* * *
Cognitive scientists spend a lot of time identifying different cognitive biases. But it's hard to overstate just how radically personal hedonic tone determines one's conception of Life, The Universe and Everything. Perhaps posthumans will regard not just negative utilitarians (etc) but Darwinian life in general as gripped by some kind of depressive psychosis. Alternatively - like our own label of the Dark Ages of European history - posthumans may regard Darwinian life as not worth contemplating at all.
Perhaps the hardest people to help are friends who refuse any form of biological intervention. You can do everything right - diet, exercise, sleep discipline - and still feel terrible. Nastiness seems to be an intrinsic feature of reality itself. I hope I'm just another depressive psychotic.
Daryl, I'm all for making suggestive parallels and analogies. But is the long-term goal of phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering really akin to ideologies like Islam or Christianity? I don't understand why are you allude to "force". No one is urging coercive happiness. Reward pathway enhancements - and even radical hedonic recalibration - doesn't promise to resolve people's disagreements and conflicting preferences. Such enhancements do predispose to a vastly higher subjective quality of life. Clearly, there are some parallels with utopian experiments of the past. But if, as a species, we do collectively re-engineer our reward architecture, then no one will claim that life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss turned out to be a disappointment.
Daryl, at a time when tens of billions of factory-farmed animals are abused and slaughtered world-wide each year, it would be ironic to imply any advocate of the sanctity of life and global veganism is urging genocide. Compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world can potentially benefit members of existing predatory species as well as their victims. Whether or not one is any kind of ethical utilitarian, enshrining in law the principle of the sanctity of life seems prudent - if only to protect us from ourselves.
* * *
Discussions of what Gautama Buddha "really" meant are always moot. But the little we know of the historical Buddha strongly suggests he was a pragmatist. If it works, do it! So we can be fairly confident than if offered biotechnology, he wouldn't have urged us to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path instead.
* * *
Alas the only technology today that can cheat the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill is wireheading.
(by which I don't mean http://www.wired.com/2014/05/diy-brain-stimulation/
("Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation | Magazine | WIRED)
But the CRISPR genome-editing revolution may shortly allow you to biohack your own reward circuitry:
("They’ve Made Designer Monkeys with Genome Editing—Are Humans Next?" | MIT Technology Review)
Well, I still think an ideal diet, daily aerobic exercise and good sleep discipline probably trumps pharmacological interventions for most people.
But perhaps wearing an EMSAM patch: the low-strength version needs no dietary restrictions. The propensity to exercise may itself one day be amenable to pharmacological control:
("Area of brain responsible for exercise motivation discovered")
* * *
Mark, yes, it can be extraordinarily hard to keep the debate focused on whether involuntary suffering should be permissible without digressing onto the separate question of whether one would personally choose always to be happy.
Karina, let's agree that sometimes pain and even suffering can play a valuable computational-functional role. What's in question is whether the "raw feels" of suffering - whether "physical" or "psychological" distress - anywhere play a computationally indispensable role. Is the Church-Turing thesis false? (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church%E2%80%93Turing_thesis)
[Not everyone would accept this formulation; they'd claim that a Turing machine - just as originally envisaged by Alan Turing as a paper tape and read/write head - could be conscious and undergo agony and bliss just like us.]
* * *
"I thought when joining this group, hedonism would be about pleasure and orgies..." Jera, I rarely smile when not in company; this morning was an exception. Perhaps see too:
("Suicidal Man Finds Will To Live After Hookers And Cocaine In Mexico")
* * *
Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law", said the Great Beast, as Crowley liked to be known. If we were all "loved up" on Ecstasy or its genetic equivalent, then perhaps a case could be made for such a maxim. Alas for now I think a lot of our desires are best kept firmly in check.
* * *
Teo Pii has just told me my book is published, which saves me the hassle of writing it.
("The Hedonistic Imperative" by David Pearce)
Self-stimulating the reward centres of the brain is the kind of thing one might do in a cage. Raising your hedonic set-point, on the other hand, can dramatically increase your quality of life while increasing your desire to engage with the world.
* * *
With Eugene Goostman's conversational skills bundled too, how much longer will traditional humans be able to compete?
("Japan's sex doll industry 'reaches next level' with perfect artificial 'Dutch Wife')
Perhaps we're poised to pass from Uncanny Valley to Supernormal Stimuli - with all the addictive potential that entails.
Why settle for the mediocre when we can engineer the sublime?
("Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits" by Nicholas Agar)
* * *
I wondered if John Zerzan was going to dodge the thought experiment around 1:20:50 - but no:
("Primitivism, Progress, the Transhuman & the Technological Avalanche")
Of course, John Zerzan is right to express scepticism that humans will apply technology wisely enough to let us get there. But his response illustrates how Zerzan doesn't really believe primitivism is ideal - merely that the consequences of botched techno-utopias will be worse. One hesitates to make universal generalisations, but I've never once met anyone who responds that s/he would urge the inhabitants of the hypothetical Triple-S civilisation to return to their "natural" ancestral roots.
* * *
Suicide? Linda, no one should be compelled to stay alive who doesn't want to. But what an indictment of psychiatric medicine. There are excellent reasons for not taking opioids. But someone failed by our existing treatments of depression should IMO have unlimited access.
[A recipe for an early grave? Surprisingly, no: it's depression that's life-shortening. Captive nonhumans given free access to opioids can live normal lifespans. Given unlimited access to cocaine, they'll be dead in a month.]
* * *
"The only way dramatically to raise global happiness levels is by psychiatric drugs, genetic engineering and other direct manipulations of our biochemical infrastructure"
(Yuval Noah Harari)
("Were we happier in the stone age?")
"Tens of billions of them [sentient beings] have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet"
[on Futurology 2014]
“I figure lots of predictions is best. People will forget the ones I get wrong and marvel over the rest.” (Alan Cox)
Top Ten Living Futurists
(HI starts at 26:15 )
Will history be so kind I wonder?
Of the three big transhumanist "supers" (superintelligence, superlongevity, superhappiness), only one is technically feasible with recognisable extensions of existing technologies. It's also - IMO - the last of the three likely to be realised; and the only one of the three where there must be serious doubt whether it will be realised at all.
Robert, thanks. The upper and lower bounds of your hedonic range - and your hedonic set-point - have high genetic loading. Benign and sinister allelic variants shaping your default level of well-being or ill-being have already been deciphered. But unlike superintelligence and superlongevity, a future of superhuman well-being still gets surprisingly little serious research. I wonder when and how the ethical-ideological breakthrough will come?
[on phasing out predation]
Hysteria against human predators is sometimes matched by hysteria in favour of their nonhuman counterparts...
An End To Predation?
("A Radical Plan To Eliminate Predatory Species")
Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian". This probably isn't the case. Yet if consumers witnessed the miseries of factory-farming and slaughterhouses first-hand, then the population of vegetarians would no doubt increase. Io9 have put up a notice, "Warning: Replies that are pending approval may contain graphic material. Please proceed with caution." Perhaps a controlled study would be revealing here. One group of respondents could be asked to consider predation in the abstract. Another group could first view a commentary-free video where sentient beings are hunted down by predators. Of course, many respondents who watch the gory video of "prey" being disembowelled, asphyxiated and eaten alive (etc) would still respond on the lines of "That's life!" - or words to that effect. But when the traditional horrors of Darwinian life are going to become technically optional. Empirically informed study of the ethical issues raised by "Nature, red in tooth and claw" might illuminate why a small but growing minority of bioethicists dissent from a knee-jerk "There Is No Alternative!"
Seancho, it's not just the hunting and killing - gruesome as it is. It's also the climate of anxiety and fear:
Most contemporary humans are unfamiliar with outright physical fear and terror.
Cathar, advocacy of high-tech Jainism doesn't (I hope) convey a message of "Screw life!"!
Rather, the belief that sentient beings shouldn't be harmed underpins the whole case for compassionate stewardship of the living world.
"Biodiversity"? In principle biodiversity can be increased because genomic editing allows crossing gaps in the fitness landscape prohibited by natural selection. Intelligent agency can "leap across" such fitness gaps.
"The end of evolution"? On the contrary, selection pressure is likely to intensify as the CRISPR and reproductive revolutions gather pace.
"Dopamine drips"? The point of urging radical recalibration of the hedonic treadmill is precisely to avoid such functional equivalents of wireheading. Leaping out of bed each morning feeling great to be alive needn't involve giving up cherished values and preferences - unless your cherished values and preferences include support for a biology of involuntary suffering.
* * *
"Worse than fascism"? That's strong stuff, Cathar! By phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering, we help (ex)predators as much as their (ex)prey. What ethically entitles one sentient being to harm another - if and when such harm becomes technically optional?
* * *
Mark, I promise I didn't choose the interview title. I even dropped i09 a line to ask if they could choose something more anodyne. [Recall my original title of the 2009 article was "Reprogramming Predators", not "Eliminating Predators" - which sounds genocidal:
http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/index.html Seancho, your question could equally be posed if we were discussing the fate of vulnerable members of other ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa: "All creatures born must die. Why is predation worse than any other more prolonged way"? and so forth. Phasing out predation and disease is only one of a raft of measures that compassionate stewardship of the biosphere entails, not least family planning / fertility regulation, medical care and nutritional support. Yes, you're right about death and senescence. But (some) nonhuman animals are likely to benefit from radical life-extension therapies even before most humans. ["The first dog to live to be 1000 years old is certainly alive today". I may be slightly misquoting Aubrey de Grey here.]
* * *
Thomas, I agree (cf. http://www.abolitionist.com) There's something fanciful in talking about planning systematically to help sentient beings while humans are systematically harming them. I simply answered the questions io9 put to me instead of tackling what's most urgent. Io9's headline writer then added a provocative title.
[Some folk are immortalised by eponymous nasty diseases; I'm accused of promoting mass genocide: "...the Permian–Triassic extinction event, the KT boundary impact, and the Pearce mass-extinction event", as one critic kindly put it.]
Martyn, saying "penguins are on the extermination list" is like saying "tribes of cannibalistic head-hunters are on the extermination list". Use of such terminology sounds as though one is urging mass genocide rather than dietary reform. Starving and malnourished penguins currently suffer nasty fates that in future can be avoided. We should be wary of basing our ethics on the stylised aesthetics of human wildlife photography.
"...a genocidal dictatorship of enforced vegetarianism"? Martyn, advocacy of strict non-violence is not a plea for genocidal dictatorship! By contrast, Darwinian ecosystems are driven by extreme violence - human and nonhuman. In the long run, intelligent moral agents will need to decide whether they want to perpetuate such ultraviolence indefinitely. Small fish? Marine crustaceans? If we're talking about the least morally urgent and also technically hardest stuff, then here we pass from what's technically feasible now to a future era of mature marine nanotechnology.
Martyn, is an ambitious program to eradicate malaria, genetically weed out the sickle-cell allele, and confer the benefits of modern education, healthcare and family planning in sub-Saharan Africa "genocide" against indigenous tribespeople? In a literal sense, clearly no. Of course, there is nothing to stop critics crying "genocide" in some strained metaphorical sense. But why not use "the civilising process" instead?
Respect for "intrinsic value"? Martyn, I guess the opposite case could be made that classical utilitarianism takes intrinsic value seriously. Ethically speaking, the classical utilitarian cannot rest until he has secured the maximum theoretically possible abundance of "utilitronium" - pure intrinsic positive value - within our cosmological horizon. By contrast, the negative utilitarian is relaxed about a whole range of scenarios once we have definitively phased out the biology of suffering.
Martyn, I fear the vehemence of your rhetoric may have scared off the herbivorous poster of
The Youtube short captures what being a predator quite literally entails. A critic might object to a film about (human) serial killers by saying, truthfully, that the footage focuses almost entirely on their episodes of ultra-violence and ignores the great bulk of their blamelessly respectable lives as pillars of the local community. No doubt. But it's the terrible harm to the innocent that we want to prevent.
A very different three-day movie could show just as much suffering but instead feature some poor creature slowly starving death. Boring, grim and typical of Darwinian life: such a movie will not be made.
Martyn, I'm pretty sure you are ethically opposed to many forms of predator and predation, e.g. if the victims are small children or members of other ethnic groups. At what level of taxonomic abstraction are we supposed to perform an ethical somersault and start favouring the interests of the predator rather than their victims? Humans? Members of the genus Homo? Hominins?
Martyn. if you don't believe an ethic of phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering, then no high-tech blueprints will persuade you. I've tried my best to sketch out what a happy biosphere might entail - subject to the constraint of retaining free-living "charismatic mega-fauna". Genetic "tweaking" isn't intended as a euphemism. Rather, we should distinguish between preimplantation genetic screening (involving no modifications at all) making a small handful of allelic modifications ("genetic tweaking") and wholesale genomic rewrites. Clearly there's a continuum.
* * *
"Pleistocene Re-wilding" receives a long respectful entry in Wikipedia. We need a "De-Wilding" entry too.
Most of us think human predators are self-evidently bad. The interests of the victim should take priority over the appetites of the assailant.
Most of us think nonhumans predators are self-evidently good. The appetites of the assailant should take priority over the interests of the victim.
("Majestic predator", "king of the beasts" etc)
Now maybe there are compelling reasons for this inversion of moral concern. But let's just say these reasons aren't so obvious that they don't need to be explicitly stated.
* * *
Thanks Brian. Almost everyone is supportive of pleas to protect the young, the sick and the vulnerable against predators - until your audience realise that you are talking about nonhuman predators and their victims too, which typically induces an intellectual and ethical somersault. I'm sceptical that much practical progress will be made in actively helping nonhuman animals until we shut factory farms and slaughterhouses in the wake of the in vitro meat revolution. We shall see.
[Whether innocently or in search of clickbait, io9's editors chose a headline evoking mass genocide rather than compassionate stewardship of the living world. This debate is not going to be conducted by the Queensberry Rules.]
* * *
Peter, "enforced vegetarianism" is actually the ultimate non-interference principle. Sentient beings shouldn't harm each other. They should be left to flourish in peace. Alas human society needs policing. The same is true of tomorrow's wildlife parks. There is of course a tension here. I don't know how it will ultimately be resolved.
* * *
Digg says: "This dog has a heart of gold. We should all strive to be more like this dog!"
("Dog Heroically Tries To Save Fish By Splashing Water Into Their Gills ")
* * *
Steve, would you endorse the anti-interventionist argument if we were discussing members of other ethnic groups rather than members of other species? ["Who are we to tamper with the wisdom of Nature and interfere with the marvellously complex reproductive cycle of the Anopheles mosquito? Malaria is a valuable form of population control that reduces human pressure on stressed sub-Saharan ecosystems..."]
Martyn, no one I know (with the exception of Robert Wiblin: http://robertwiblin.com/2010/01/21/just-destroy-nature/) is urging Nature be "vandalised", but rather civilised and beautified. There is nothing aesthetically attractive about the horrors of starvation, disease and parasitism. Fish? Unlike large terrestrial vertebrates - "charismatic megafauna" like elephants in our wildlife parks - systematic compassionate intervention in marine ecosystems stretching beyond cetaceans and cephalopods is not a credible intervention this century. Below that "trophic level", we're barely beyond the proof-of-concept stage.
Mark, yes, just as it's possible to urge phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering only in members of one's own ethnic group, likewise it's possible to advocate confining the abolitionist project to a single species, namely one's own. Yet we need to ask whether such a stance expresses any kind of principled distinction. Or does it instead reflect ethnocentric and anthropocentric bias?
Jera, I've always identified with "prey" lower down the food chain myself. But the good news is that most apex predators don't hunt when they aren't hungry. And humanity's waistline is expanding.
Malthusian collapse? Rob, the limiting factor in human population sizes across most of the world isn't food supply but access to family planning. Without access to contraception, parents in the developed and developing world alike would tend to have ten or twelve children, just like our great-grandparents, leading to global immiseration and ecological catastrophe - just as Malthus would have predicted. Clearly, nonhuman animals can't practise family planning in the same way. But whether population sizes in our future wildlife parks are governed by starvation and predation as now, or cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception, is a question of ethical choice. We can't any longer claim: There Is No Alternative.
* * *
Dawkins' claim that "It must be so" fails for the same reason that claims of inevitable Malthusian catastrophe fail for human populations. Dawkins doesn't consider the possibility of fertility regulation. The case study below isn't properly costed - it relies on back-of-an-envelope calculations. But this doesn't affect the principle at stake.
A beneficial case of interfering with nature? Well, perhaps consider smallpox. Last century, a systematic international effort was made to wipe out Variola major and Variola minor world-wide. The last naturally occurring case of smallpox outside a laboratory occurred in 1997 in the horn of Africa.
Comparing the physical and cognitive vulnerability of nonhuman animals to the vulnerabilities of small children? Surely, yes. Billions of nonhuman animals are abused in factory farms. They lack the cognitive capacity effectively to resist their exploiters. Sadly, some young humans are abused too. The kind of nonhuman "well-being" that you're alluding to isn't subjective well-being. It's the metaphysical "well-being" of a species or some other taxonomic abstraction. By that criterion, the genus Sus is flourishing. Alas its individual members typically lead miserable lives in human factory farms.
"Mind reading"? Cats don't pass the mirror test. Do you believe that a cat "playing" with a mouse displays the intentionality needed to understand the mouse's suffering? I doubt cats do more perspective-switching than a human game-player wasting hostiles in "Modem Warfare 4". I'm happy to stand corrected if you have evidence otherwise.
Anthropomorphism? The same neurological pathways, neurotransmitter systems, genetics (mostly) and behavioural responses to noxious stimuli are involved in, say, physical pain and fear in humans, pigs and gazelles. And in mice and rats, for that matter. That's why rodents are used to test, e.g. investigational antidepressants and painkillers. No, this argument doesn't defeat radical scepticism about other minds; but then it doesn't defeat radical scepticism about other human minds either.
Can immunocontraception lead to frustrated "broodiness"? Potentially, yes. But broodiness can be hormonally controlled too.
Is a lion who eats catnip-laced in vitro meat still a true lion? I guess one might ask the same question of a human who eats in vitro meat too. Let's leave that one to the metaphysicians.
Ethical experimentation? Vast numbers of procedures can be performed on human and nonhuman animals alike that don't involve harming the subject in any way.
Climatology? That's too vast a topic to cover here. But recall that a global switch to a meatless diet will hugely decrease greenhouse-gas emissions. Global vegetarianism is also probably the most straightforward way to reduce the burden of severe and readily avoidable suffering in the world today.
Does more need to be said? Lots.
Randall, the mutation of the EGLN1 gene common in high-altitude-living Tibetans that occurred 8000 years ago was random. Its spread is non-random because the allele is fitness-enhancing:
Thanks to biotechnology, evolution can in future be non-random in both senses - and hence much faster. Entire "designer genomes" may be anticipated.
* * *
Gabriel, hence the need for cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception. Perhaps see:
Christopher, as an advocate of in vitro meat development and commercialisation, I promise it's not abhorrence at flesh-eating per se that drives this argument, but the grisly story of suffering that typically lies behind it.
Human extinction? Well, like toddlers who grow up, I hope humans become "extinct" in that sense. Of course toddlers tend to be educated whereas today's obligate carnivores may need to be "reprogrammed".
Exterminating predators? Well, as an advocate of high tech Jainism (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/transhumanism/neojainism.html), I promise I don't favour harming any sentient being - unless that is you believe an Anopheles mosquito has reproductive rights that are violated by the use of mass sterilants.
Zephyr, if you or a loved one were threatened by a predator - or some other agent likely to cause you great suffering - and I can readily save you, are you arguing that I have no obligation to do so? Should I just shrug by shoulders, talk about life's rich tapestry, and perhaps add a few photos of t spectacle for my collection? Seriously, complications aside, no sentient being wants to be harmed. Rational moral agents will shortly be in a position to ensure that their wishes are respected.
René, you raise difficult issues about the threshold of sentience and the origins of the pleasure pain-axis. The simplest orgasms for which there is (IMO) unequivocal evidence of a pleasure-pain axis are flatworms: their opioid-dopamine system responds to noxious stimuli in the same way as humans. Flatworms exhibit similar behaviour responses too. By contrast, any sentience or hedonic tone internal to the unicellular micro-organisms is both presumably physically and ethically trivial. A problem for our successors, I suspect.
Patrick, perhaps consider human predators who gratify their appetites on small children. What weight should we give to their frustrated desires compared to the harm to their victims? No, human predators don't choose their proclivities. But on some quite modest assumptions, the interests of the victims must be prioritised over those who might harm them. Why turn this principle on its head when the victims are of comparable sentience and sapience to human infants and prelinguistic toddlers but belong to a different race or species? Predators - human and nonhuman - don't deserve to be harmed. But rational moral agents should try to re-channel their appetites in a direction that doesn't harm others.
The comparative delights of leaf-grazing compared to flesh eating? Well, reward pathway enhancements are feasible for humans and nonhuman animals alike. (cf. http://www.abolitionist.com) Alternatively, in vitro meat can offer an ethical alternative to the horrors of predation and factory-farming.
Age and infirmity? For a costed case-study of what compassionate care for free-living members of another species might entail, perhaps see:
* * *
Hydroxide, "a quick bite to the throat" doesn't sound too bad. But as anyone subjected to waterboarding will attest, the feeling of asphyxiation is extraordinarily unpleasant. Further, life as a herbivore is often driven by anxiety and fear.
(cf. "The Landscape of Fear"
China? I agree with you about the ineptitude and immorality of how the authorities have implemented the now relaxed one-child policy. But watching half one's perpetually hungry family slowly die from the effects of malnutrition isn't kinder. Family planning support, not coercion, is surely preferable, as the experience of sub-Saharan Africa bears out.
Clearly, we're looking way into the future. But consider how conservationists invest resources today. Captive breeding programs for nonhuman predators are as ethically perverse as would be captive breeding programs for human predators. In the long run, there are more ethical ways than predation, hunger and disease to control population numbers in human and nonhuman animals alike.
Elizabeth, does the idea that species have interests make more sense than the idea that the Aryan race has interests? Ultimately, there are only sentient beings. Regardless of race or species, fertility control is a kinder method of regulating population numbers than famine, disease and predation.
KatjaKat, were humans wrong to wipe out smallpox? Are we arrogant in aiming to make Plasmodium-carrying species of the Anopheles species extinct in the wild? For better or worse, humans are going to choose which lifeforms exist in our future wildlife parks. What's in question is the principles of responsible stewardship. Should the burden of suffering count as a morally relevant consideration in our choices? Or not? There certainly are futurists who believe that most of traditional Darwinian life is so grim that it shouldn't be preserved (cf. http://robertwiblin.com/2010/01/21/just-destroy-nature/
"Why Improve Nature When Destroying It Is So Much Easier")
Instead, I was urging compassionate conservatism, so to speak - for human and nonhuman animals alike. The fact evolution "designed" male humans to be hunters and warriors doesn't mean that we can't try to be more civilised.
If a sentient being - human or nonhuman - loses his "drive" to harm others, has the predator in question lost some vital part of his metaphysical essence? Maybe. But if so, does this matter? It's not obvious (to me at any rate) that a world where sentient beings don't harm each other is worse than the state of the planet today.
"Productive" suffering as a driver of evolution? Gregorius, why exactly does the evolution of a nonhuman animal species matter? Evolution to what end? Sentient beings have interests - not taxonomic abstractions. However, let's grant your premise. CRSPR and allied technologies allow "evolution" of a kind previously forbidden by natural selection because it involved crossing "fitness gaps" - and at a tempo orders of magnitude faster too. Involuntary suffering of any kind will shortly become optional. Why preserve it?
Threns, free-living sentient beings can flourish only if no one is trying to hurt, harm or kill them. Respect for the integrity of sentient beings regardless of race or species isn't a violation of autonomy or individual rights. Compare how human slave-owners felt their autonomy and individual rights were threatened by abolitionists who sought to emancipate "their" slaves. A right to freedom from harm differs from a right to freedom to harm others.
"Predator-prey energy cycles"? Does this technically accurate expression evoke the realities of Darwinian life ["The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation" - Richard Dawkins] Yes, if primordial Darwinian life exists elsewhere within our cosmological horizon, then I'd hope posthuman superintelligence could lend aid to its victims. As I probably don't need to add, the prospect of "cosmic rescue missions" is currently remote.
"Blind faith"? The reason I responded in the interview that "my sympathies lie with the sceptical reader who reckons humans will probably mess things up" is that my sympathies lie with the sceptical reader who reckons humans will probably mess things up.
That's no reason not to try our best.
* * *
Threns, genome-editing technology does bring evolution to a halt, either in humans or nonhumans. On the contrary, genome editing can intensify selection pressure. Nature has no foresight; genome editors do. "Monkeying around" suggests messing with something benign for no good end. In reality, intelligent moral agents will never be able to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering without genetic interventions.
Alien lifeforms? Well, I suspect Hubble volumes where primordial life arises than once may be vanishingly rare, meaning we're typical in being alone. But let's run with your thought-experiment. If a super-advanced space-faring civilisation were to stumble across us, they would find the cognitive equivalent of small toddlers who don't know how to look after themselves. And if you stumble across a small toddler in distress, you don't leave him to his fate.
* * *
Timo, imagine if we chose between political ideologies on aesthetic criteria such as the sartorial elegance of their supporters rather than their ethical principles. Enthusiasm for (nonhuman) predators over their victims often doesn't run much deeper. Predatory tigers, lions and eagles are admired. By contrast, who wants to be branded a "mouse" or a "rabbit"?
* * *
"Powerful urges"? KatjaKat, consider members of our own species who have urges to abuse small children. Some, sadly, succumb to these urges; others don't - and consequently feel frustrated. Yes, the existence of the frustrated urges is regrettable. Ethically speaking, however, we recognise that the interests of the victims must be prioritised - not in spite of their limited cognitive capacities compared to potential abusers, but precisely because of their vulnerability.
Yes, it's possible that lions, for example, may feel frustration if their predatory instructs are frustrated. But 1) for the most part, free living big cats are "lazy", i.e. if sated, they don't engage in the energetically expensive pursuit of "prey". Thus catnip-laced in vitro meat, for example, would probably be a far more attractive menu option. And 2) tomorrow's genome-editing technologies will be more than capable of banishing predatory urges.
Neither of these considerations are relevant to critics who don't consider the suffering of free living non-human animals to be an ethical problem in the first instance. In the abstract, "predation" doesn't sound any worse than, say, halitosis. But let's not kind ourselves...
* * *
...Lest anyone worry for my sanity, I was just trying to nudge certain Christians towards a more charitable conception of God's intentions, not lay claim to the attributes of divinity...Seriously, it's a troubling scenario: humans will become transhumans who become posthumans who become gods. But what to us might seem God-like powers won't be enough. For the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency may still fall far short of purging suffering from the multiverse. Are we doomed to be ineffective altruists? Let's hope this bleak suspicion is misplaced.
* * *
("Wolves Introduced To Park To Revitalize Ecosystem")
Haunting music, a hushed and reverential voiceover - this kind of propaganda would make Kim Il-sung blush. Why no footage of wolves eating their victims alive - ripping chunks of flesh off their still living victims to reach their intestines? Whether for humans or nonhumans, compassionate control of population sizes via fertility regulation should be weighed against (re)creating a "landscape of fear".
No contest IMO.
Peter, behavioural medication is enough for headhunters. Addictive in vitro meat might work for most obligate carnivores - with telemonitoring and remote-controlled neurochips to prevent "accidents".
Genetic tweaking might be technically easier. Alas it might offend purists; but then purists are offended by a lot of things.
All this is quite fanciful in an era of factory farming.
Matt, there are worse reasons for wanting to end suffering in human and nonhuman animals than "feeling bad" when one sees them suffer. But if that were really the whole reason, then one could simply close one's eyes. Rather, knowledge of the self-intimating badness of agony and despair for oneself can be combined with natural science's disclosure that one is not special or privileged to yield the inference that agony and despair are bad for sentient beings anywhere. Decision-theoretic rationality dictates that one acts accordingly.
Does insect pain matter? A system can be exceedingly simple and matter a great deal. Compare [the small neural network supporting] a pure pinprick-in-a-test-tube and [the large neural network supporting] pure agony-in-a-test-tube.
Both are exceedingly simple, there is no meta-cognition [e.g. "this experience will be over soon"] But only the agony really matters. The pinprick knows nothing but a pinprick, so to speak, but it's too faint to be anything other than trivial. Even a small pinprick-intensity pain in a living organism can provoke a lightening-fast response Anyhow, here we come to Brian Tomasik's work What we don't yet know is whether insect ganglia, for example, can support - crudely speaking - all-consuming pinprick-intensity pain or all-consuming agony. What matters in this context is not whether it's all-consuming; but its intensity.
Just opening skirmishes in a very long war:
("Oxford scientist warns of 'drastic action' if neighbours allow cats to roam and kill birds")
* * *
Thanks guys. I'm quite relaxed about idiocies: it's the venom of some folk that still sometimes surprises me. Anyone would think I was urging eating babies for breakfast - whereas I'm arguing that babies ought not to eaten.
* * *
"Chaos"? Peter, the weather is a chaotic system. Its chaotic nature - in the technical sense of "chaotic" - does not mean we can't confidently predict that this time next year it will be cold in the Antarctic and hot in the Sahara. Humans already massively intervene in the rest of the living world. We have no substantive reason to believe that compassionate stewardship is more likely to lead to terrible outcomes than non-compassionate stewardship. Rob, for what it's worth, my views on ecology are derivative - and scientifically orthodox. My views on conservation biology are rather unorthodox - but then conservation biology is an explicitly normative discipline, just as would be any future science of compassionate biology.
Unwarranted imposition of personal values? The desire not to be harmed is virtually universal among sentient beings. Lions don't want to be harmed any more than their victims. In seeking to protect both lions and their victims from harm, we would not be imposing alien values. The pleasure-pain axis is common to sentient organic life.
Oxbridge elitism? Peter, I think Gautama Buddha trumps the Oxbridge common room. Wittgenstein said "If a lion could speak, we could understand him". But lions, zebras and prelinguistic toddlers alike display a clearly expressed wish not to be harmed; and technology allows their wishes to be respected.
* * *
The smell of depravity?
("Blood odour chemical gets carnivores drooling")
* * *
Can we build friendly biological intelligence?
It's theoretically feasible; but not without editing our genetic source code and shutting the death factories.
("“Gene Drives” and CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem Management")
Will Christian pundits and policy makers support the lion and the wolf lying down with the lamb? One might hope so. Sadly, most Christian fundamentalists believe that we shouldn't take the Bible literally."
* * *
Did human intelligence evolve to wage war?
("Like Collaboration And Intelligence In Humans? Thank War")
In the state-space of all possible minds, would a benevolent superintelligence create humans? Presumably not. Will posthuman superintelligence be prone to status quo bias? This seems unlikely. So curtains for humanity? Quite probably yes. But if posthuman superintelligence will also be our biological descendants rather than a singleton AGI, we needn't fear an apocalyptic species extinction event.
* * *
Aging in nonhuman animals? Michael, I agree, it's a huge challenge. Perhaps see "Ending Aging":
I'm less optimistic than Aubrey de Grey about time-scales rather than the technologies themselves. Either way, just as (potentially) lifespan-extending selegiline/l-deprenyl is marketed for "canine cognitive dysfunction" in senior dogs (cf. http://www.thensome.com/cds.htm), the advent of radical antiaging therapies will be (very) rapidly followed by their use in our nonhuman animal companions. Such interventions could - in principle - be extended across the phylogenetic tree to free-living members of tomorrow's wildlife parks if combined with cross species fertility regulation.
For a costed case study, perhaps see "Elephant Orthodontics"
[Wild elephants generally die from the effects of malnutrition or starvation when their final set of molars wears down.]
* * *
Just imagine we were discussing human predators. Suppose someone claims controversially that we should prioritise their interests. Their appetites would be frustrated if they weren't gratified. Who are we to "play God"? "Hubris!". "Unknown side-effects". (etc)
Politer respondents would point out that we should consider the interests of their vulnerable young victims too. The same if true of cognitively humble members of other species harmed by nonhuman predators. Technology allows the protection of sentient beings who would otherwise be asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive - or die from hunger, parasitism or disease. Will intelligent moral agents ever use their utopian technology for this purpose? We can only speculate.
* * *
All these literary allusions are giving me an idea for a short story with an unexpected twist in the plot. We use biotechnology to engineer heaven-on-earth and nothing goes wrong.
(Possibly too far-fetched, I know.)
* * *
The Genocidal Imperative? Peter, I wouldn't harm a fly, and I don't advocate species extinction. So the charge of "genocide" is misplaced rhetoric. Abstract objects can't be killed. I do believe that e.g. Plasmodium-carrying species of Anopheles mosquito should Â be sterilised and allowed to go extinct in the wild. But this is already consensus wisdom. Details? Well, you're welcome to wade through the. 200,000 words I have online - I'm very happy to tackle any specific questions / criticisms to the best of my fallible ability. But don't do this stuff in the expectation I'll be "implementing" anything. Rather the purpose is to put these issues in the public domain so they can be explored and critiqued.
"Reprogramming" predators? Well, there's the low-tech and the high-tech approach. The conservative, low-tech approach is sating them on the equivalent of catnip-flavoured in vitro mincemeat. Delicious! (OK, yuk. But I'm not a cat.)
* * *
Religious believers as friends or foes? Kosta, let's assume - recklessly perhaps - that our scientific world-picture is broadly correct and phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is ethically appropriate.
If success depends on converting essentially the whole world to secular scientific rationalism then I wouldn't rate our chances too highly within any foreseeable timeframe. But the great religions originating in the Indian subcontinent have a central role for "ahimsa". And the monotheistic Abrahamic religions all law great stress on the All-Merciful, All-Compassionate nature of God. Thankfully, none of the great religions proscribe biotechnology. All have shown their capacity to adapt to the practical fruits of science and technology. I'm not convinced Â we want to alienate religious folk by claiming that signing up for an abolitionist agenda entails give up their cherished value-and-belief systems if instead they can be persuaded it's all part of God's master plan.
Of course in other contexts, we can still argue that revealed religion is fundamentally misconceived - and I wish children's minds weren't polluted with such nonsense.
* * *
Childbirth? Kevin, there is quite a big difference between "meaningful" pain - and for evolutionary reasons, childbirth for most women is intensely meaningful - and the great bulk of suffering that feels completely meaningless. That said, even some women keen on the "natural" approach find the first-person realities of intense pain are enough to persuade them of the advantages of medically administered pain relief.
Jera, yes, some kinds of pain are bearable. But at the risk of sounding like a decadent sensualist, information-sensitive gradients of bliss are more fun.
* * *
Mark, I can understand if anyone takes sight of io9's clickbait choice of headline and sees red mist before their eyes. For what it's worth, my best guess is that a thousand years from now, experience below hedonic zero will long since have passed into history; but not in a way any of us imagined. Rather more specifically, IMO anyone who signs up to phasing out involuntary suffering AND imagines that genetically and behaviourally identical snakes, lions and crocodiles can go about their normal business as now in tomorrow's wildlife parks hasn't thought through the implications of their position. Emotional fluffiness is not a license for intellectual flabbiness.
* * *
Hlykacg, io9's editors have a good eye for a provocative headline. The content of the interview itself was (I'd assumed) less incendiary. Yes, the design of compassionate wildlife parks for free-living nonhumans would inevitably involve some genetic-behavioural tweaking. But to call it an extinction event, let alone genocide, would be inflammatory. Compare the genetic-behavioural processes by which archaic Homo sapiens has been (partially) civilised:
How far across ["down"] the phylogenetic tree our successors may (or may not go) clearly belongs to the realm of speculation. But utopian technology might actually be used for utopian purposes.
The comparative importance of humans and nonhumans? If a toddler is of comparable sentience and sapience to an elephant, then a powerful ethical case can be made for impartial benevolence, i.e. equal consideration of interests, when our technology allows us to protect both.
McGhee, all moral progress - yes, the term sounds naïve - depends on asking of some unpleasant feature of the world: "Does life have to be that way?" Whether the institution of human slavery or the predation of other sentient beings of other species, the phenomenon might seem both natural and inevitable to one generation - and ethically indefensible to its successors. Biotechnology in conjunction with cross-species fertility regulation promises to make predation optional. Indeed, ultimately, biotechnology promises any kind of unpleasant experience optional. Will our smarter and (perhaps) wiser successors will want to see sentient beings terrorised, disembowelled, asphyxiated and eaten alive? Today the answer might seem obviously "yes"; but I think there is a case for examining some of our basic background assumptions here. Lucas. Thanks My reasons for focusing on lions were partly than humans invest resources in captive breeding programs for big cats, but mainly because Christians supposedly look forward to an era when the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb, Alas the Bible is silent on r/K selection theory.
Matt, how, if at all, can (dis)value be naturalised? Let's distinguish the claim that there is no objectively truth or falsity to the claim, say "Adultery is wrong" from the claim that the world objectively contains no (dis)value - it's an insentient zombieworld for example. In reality, for reasons we simply don't understand, the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world's intrinsic metric of value. It's not an "open question" for me whether my agony (etc) is disvaluable. Evolution via natural selection has systematically biased humans against granting equal weight to the interests of other subjects of experience. But God-like superintelligences who can impartially access and weigh all possible first-person perspectives will presumably be free from such biases.
Freeman Dyson, writing before the CRISPR revolution, speaks of a new generation of artists who will "write genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses". Biotech can be used for more morally serious purposes too.
1) Why do you believe that e.g. cross-species immunocontraception can't regulate population sizes in our future wildlife parks - rather than hunger and predation? If an author invokes some unspecified sci-fi technology or Kurzweilian "Technological Singularity" (etc) to banish the cruelties of the living world, then the prospect of compassionate stewardship could be dismissed us utopian dreaming. But technologies of fertility regulation, GPS tracking, neuro-chipping and so forth already exist. What's in question is how they can be most ethically used.
2) Malthus wrote extensively on why "it must be so" for humans. Malthus failed to anticipate family planning. Nonhuman animals can't systematically regulate their fertility like contemporary humans. So Dawkins' mistaken inference is understandable. Dawkins failed to anticipate that humans - or our successors - might contemplate use of the more compassionate alternative on behalf of our cognitively humble cousins.
3) Selection pressure is inevitable: it will endure as long as life itself. But the nature of that selection pressure changes in human and nonhumans alike when evolution is no longer "blind" or driven by random [with respect to the direction of evolution] mutations - as must be the case under a regime of Darwinian natural selection.
Thanks to biotechnology, rational agents can choose alleles / allelic combinations in anticipation of their likely physical, behavioural and psychological effects on the organism. Selection pressure isn't going to slacken as the reproductive revolution and CRISPR/gene drives technologies gain momentum; it's going to intensify. And that selection pressure won't be "blind".
4) You might like to explore e.g.
1) No insurmountable technical challenges are posed by the extension of immunocontraception in a single race or species to multiple races or species. Compassionate stewardship of tomorrow's wildlife parks isn't going to founder because we run out of computer power. If human or nonhuman predators no longer harm "prey", and if famine is no longer a limiting factor in controlling population sizes, then the carrying capacity of a wildlife park needs to be computationally modelled and regulated accordingly. Optimal population sizes of different free-living "charismatic mega fauna" can be ethically determined. No radically new technology need be involved in cross-species fertility regulation, just recognisable extensions of existing technologies.
2) Both the values and technologies of our successors must be speculative. Who knows for what purposes e.g. Drexler-inspired nanobots etc may be recruited. But predation, parasitism, disease, nutritional deficits and so forth are ethically problematic only when the victims are sentient beings with nervous systems. Yes, there are grey areas. We can debate whether protozoa or cellulose cell-wall-bound plant cells might support rudimentary micro-experiences. But plants and protozoa don't suffer - short of some very exotic metaphysics!
3) Before contemplating a world of compassionate biology, the need for pilot studies in individual wildlife-parks and the cross-disciplinary expertise of bioethicists, conservation biologists, behavioural ecologists, population biologists, geneticists, in vitro meat experts, (etc) can be taken as read. Tomorrow's wildlife parks will not be run by philosophers. Yes, you're right, the discussion here is "speculation". But it's not speculation in the Star Trek-like sense of the term. No revolutionary technical breakthrough needs to be assumed, but rather a moral breakthrough. Sentient beings should be systematically helped rather than harmed.
4) The CRISPR revolution and gene drives technologies are new. They are advancing at a breakneck pace. Multiple and redundant editing and error-correction systems are clearly desirable when making far-reaching genomic interventions. Yes, in the absence of sustained artificial selection, "natural" selection will reassert itself. But "artificial" selection pressure is going to intensify as rational agents gain control over their own genomes and the rest of the biosphere.
Of course, an evolutionary transition to post-Darwinian life may never happen. Insofar as you highlight the immense technical and moral challenges posed by compassionate biology, I agree with you. But when it comes to the traditional miseries of Darwinian life, a dogmatic claim of "It must be so" isn't viable. At most, their necessity is a conjecture - a conjecture that looks increasingly thin.
* * *
The idea of humans ever trying systematically to help free-living animals at a time when we are systematically harming their captive cousins in our factory-farms sounds fanciful. But the implications of an ethic of compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world are worth exploring - even if we don't live long enough to see such a scenario come to pass.
How To Win Friends And Influence People (2)
("Gatos y otras especies que algunos humanos quieren exterminar")
A more accurate term might be "help" predators - many of whom are themselves hungry and distressed. This is not so clickable a headline - unless the reader were to imagine that human predators were under discussion, which would trigger a ferociously anti-predatory response.
* * *
Who will be Anti-Choice?
("We Justify Human Suffering Because We’ve Never Had a Choice in the Matter ")
From past experience, surprisingly few people say "Ethically, I think using biotech to get rid of involuntary suffering is wonderful for most people; I just wouldn't choose to do so myself". People just say they support or oppose the idea. I guess we're all self-referential; I'm no exception.
Responsibility or complicity?
("The natural world can only persist now as a deliberate act of human will.")
* * *
Will these majestic predators be programmed to restore the balance of Nature...?
("MIT's Super-Stealthy Robot Cheetah Can Run You Down")
* * *
Perhaps sabre-toothed cats can roam the English countryside again too?
("Rewilding Britain: bringing wolves, bears and beavers back to the land")
* * *
Martyn, should an intelligent chrysalis decline to become a butterfly on the grounds that it might lose its enduring chrysalid identity? If offered a wonder-pill or gene therapy that made you progressively more intelligent, more empathetic, longer-lived and happier, would you take it? "Mass extinction" conjures up images of Armageddon. What we're actually doing is clawing our way out of the Darwinian abyss.
Suffering? Although I happen to be a negative utilitarian, nothing in HI or abolitionist bioethics compels one to be NU or even a utilitarian. A commitment to minimise involuntary suffering may be just one of your values among many.
Peter, the existence of suffering in a world of WMD is itself a source of existential risk. How many of the almost one million depressed people who take their own lives world-wide each year would take the rest of the world down with them if they could? By contrast, the more we love life, the more we tend to strive to conserve it.
* * *
Sexual coercion in nonhuman animals? Chris, first let's consider all cases of sex between humans. Some are clearly consensual, others are clearly non-consensual, e.g. a man having sex with a woman against her clearly expressed wishes via force, or threat of force, in a context outside bedroom fantasy role-playing. The term "rape is IMO best used for these latter cases.
As well as these large and clear-cut black and white areas, there is a grey zone of ethically questionable conduct.
Depending how we define the term "rape", sexual coercion is either an immense problem with nonhuman animals, or a less severe one.
Either way, I hope our successors can tackle ethically questionable as well as nakedly coercive behaviour in human and nonhuman animals alike.
* * *
Hunting? Mike, if someone takes pleasure in harming others, should the amount of pleasure they derive count as a morally relevant consideration? If the victims are small children, then a plea of "It tastes good" is not a morally compelling argument. So is the force of the plea any stronger when the victims are of comparable sentience but belong to a different ethnic group or species? Or is life and liberty a principle that deserves to be generalised?
* * *
Humans versus nonhumans? Martyn, it's a false dichotomy. There are human and nonhuman animals. We share the same core emotions and pleasure-pain axis. A lot of writing on "animals" simply ignores Darwin and the Modern Synthesis. Anyhow, let's distinguish between being anti-predator and anti-predation. We shouldn't be "anti-predator". In my view, human predators who harm young and vulnerable humans should be comfortably and securely confined. They should be treated with care and respect. It's not the fault of human predators that they have such powerful but socially unacceptable urges. Actually, in many cases, they don't even intend to cause harm - harm is just a terrible long-term by-product commonly undergone by their victims. In the case of free living non-human predators, the hypothetical provision of in vitro meat or genetic behavioural tweaking in tomorrow's wildlife parks, combined with fertility regulation, can potentially hugely improve their well-being. Today, obligate carnivores are often ravenously hungry. Many of their offspring don't survive. Their interests need promoting no less than their victims.
As subjugation goes, I can think of fates far worse...
* * *
The idea seems to be spreading:
("Přeprogramujme predátory na vegetariány, navrhují futuristé")
Responses tend to be more insightful when the bland term "predation" is replaced by specific examples:
("Pearce and Predation: The Intersection of Veganism and Transhumanism")
[on global veganism in Treehugger]
Should we be free to harm others?
("Meet the people who want to turn predators into vegans")
1. People born with congenital analgesia must live "cotton wool" existences or else they die. A capacity to feel pain - and sometimes agony - has been genetically adaptive. But this doesn't mean we're stuck with pain for ever. In the short run, choosing "low pain" alleles for our future children via preimplantation genetic diagnosis is a stopgap. In the long run, the function of nociception can be offloaded onto smart prostheses. For more detail, perhaps see:
And for free-living nonhuman animals, perhaps:
("“Gene Drives” and CRISPR Could Revolutionize Ecosystem Management")
Could anything go wrong?
Hence the need for intelligent long-term planning.
2. Uniform bliss and uniform despair are maladaptive. "If someone offered you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass that is perpetually stuck on north is worthless", to quote Daniel Gilbert. By contrast, a biology of information-sensitive gradients of ill-being and information-sensitive gradients of well-being are consistent with both critical insight and adaptive behaviour. Only a high hedonic set-point predisposes to a high subjective quality of life. We know that some "hyperthymic" people are blessed with a naturally high hedonic set-point. Conversely, unipolar depressives are cursed with a low hedonic set-point. We also know that hedonic set-points have a high degree of genetic loading.
Whether we choose to engineer ourselves - and eventually nonhuman animals - with high or low hedonic set-points is ultimately an ethical choice - not a law of Nature.
3) Complications aside, no sentient being wants to harmed. If some form of psychological hedonism is true, then there is doubtless a sense in which we are all self-serving, all of the time. But why are initiatives to mitigate, and perhaps ultimately abolish, suffering any more "self-serving" than advocacy of the status quo? The virtues and vices of advocates of global veganism are no more morally relevant to the case against harming other sentient beings than the virtues and vices of missionaries are morally relevant to the case against cannibalism.
4) The creation of all new life - both human and nonhuman - in sexually reproducing organisms is a unique genetic experiment. For sure, we can preserve today's genetic crapshoot. A genetic crapshoot guarantees that pain and suffering will last indefinitely. Alternatively, mastery of our genetic source code potentially allows intelligent agents to choose how much suffering we bring into the world - starting with preimplantation genetic screening, but eventually full-blown genetic engineering.
Consent? The unborn can't give it. In the short-to-medium term, the pressing issue is fertility regulation - the bass of compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world, and the basis of any compassionate ecosystem whose sustainability isn't founded on a regime of starvation, parasitism and predation. Contemporary humans can choose contraception. Free-living nonhuman animals don't enjoy that choice. So which is the more ethical way to run a wildlife park? Preserving a regime where perhaps half of elephant calves, say, die from the effects of malnourishment and inadequate nutrition - to the profound distress of their mothers and the rest of the herd? Or painlessly ensuring via immunocontraception that population numbers don't exceed the carrying capacity of ecosystem in question?
5) Young, old, sick and weak members of a herd or a tribe are indeed more likely to fall victim to the horrors of starvation, disease and predation. Thankfully, we no longer regard crude Social Darwinism as an ethically acceptable way to regulate populations of other ethnic groups. Likewise, such cruelties will shortly be technically optional for sentient beings from other species. Whether our future wildlife parks are run on the basis of compassionate stewardship or the ideology of traditional conservation biology depends on our ethical values. Should we seek to minimise the abundance of severe and avoidable suffering in the living world? Or not?
6. The exponential growth of computer power means that every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control. The sinister Orwellian potential of such technology is obvious. However, if - and it's a big if - humans or our successors choose to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering, then they won't fail because they run out of computational resources to do so.
Before planning the long-term future of the biosphere, there is IMO a more urgent priority: shutting factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Until we end humanity's systematic abuse of other sentient beings, talk of compassionate ecosystems is probably just fanciful.
* * *
There may be powerful arguments in favour of retaining the traditional cruelties of Darwinian life. The idea that philosophers don't understand the thermodynamics of a food chain isn't one of them. Starvation as a cause of death in the developed world is almost unknown. Much of the developing world is making the same demographic transition. The reason is family planning. If we be believe that phasing out the biological of (involuntary) suffering is a worthwhile long-term goal, then helping sentient but not sapient beings regulate their fertility will be vital.
At current rates of habitat destruction, most large nonhuman terrestrial vertebrates will be extinct in the wild outside our wildlife parks by the middle of this century. So what's in question is the ethical principles on which they are administered. In many respects - not in all - nonhuman vertebrates are akin in their level of sentience and sapience to human prelinguistic toddlers. Human toddlers flourish best when neither "wild" nor kept in a "zoo," but in a free-living state where their interests are safeguarded by a responsible caregiver.
The "self-serving" charge is a red herring. Bioethicists opposed to predation don't have undeclared stock options in veterinary supply companies! The interests at stake are those of our fellow subjects of experience. Sentient beings don't want to be harmed - to be asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive. Or to starve to death. For the first time in evolutionary history, these grisly fates are shortly going to become optional. I'm unclear why you believe they should be preserved for members of other species but not other races.
"La-la Land"? Take an archaic human on a tour of a contemporary supermarket, and he's think he was living in it! Yes, phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is technically challenging. Perhaps centuries are a credible time-scale: this isn't a Five Year Plan. Conceptually, the proposal is quite tame. Future life will most likely hold stranger surprises.
A thought-experiment: imagine that through some quirk of fate and metabolism you were born so you could flourish only by systematically harming others. Would you insist that your hardwired predisposition was passed on faithfully to your offspring? Would you decline any genetic and behavioural modification that allowed you to flourish while leaving other sentient beings unmolested? Maybe - but ethically speaking, the interests of the victims would need to be taken into consideration too. Of course, a lion or a tiger does not understand the implications of what he or she is doing. But how is this absence of malice a license for disregarding the interests of the victims? in practice, compassionate stewardship of tomorrow's wildlife parks can potentially benefit members of formerly predatory species and their victims alike. That said, before we can systematically start helping other sentient beings we must stop systematically harming them. It is hard to imagine humans could start systematically trying to help free-living nonhuman animals before factory-farms and slaughterhouses are shut and outlawed.
* * *
Malthusian catastrophe were otherwise inevitable for humans, then the Chinese approach to fertility regulation might be defensible. But it's not. The carrying capacity of the planet substantially exceeds the range of projected maximum projected human population sizes. Indeed, the carrying capacity of the planet will be higher still if we all turn vegan or - more realistically perhaps - invitrotarian.
Yes, there are still parts of the world where free access to, and information about, family planning is not readily available; but thankfully progress continues. In the case of sexually active but moderately-to-severely mentally handicapped people with the cognitive capacities of normal toddlers, an ethical case might be made for provision by their caregivers of contraception without - but not against - their consent insofar as the severely mentally handicapped don't understand the link between sexual behaviour and conception. But (IMO) the risks of abuse are probably too great.
"Self-serving"? If everyone is defined as behaving in a self-serving way, all of the time, then the term becomes vacuous. Doubtless opponents of human slavery, for example, had complex motives; but a slave owner who made such a charge against abolitionists - rather than reflecting on his own motivations - would be disingenuous. Either way, what counts is the calibre of the argument for and against a policy, not our sometimes shadowy motivations for making them.
The wishes of nonhuman animals? To be sure, we don't know what it's like be a bat. But turning the clearly expressed desire of nonhuman animals not to be e.g. desperately hungry - or to see one's offspring eaten alive by a predator - into some deep metaphysical mystery runs up against a convergence of behavioural and neurobiological evidence. Sentient beings don't want to be harmed! To imply that human or nonhuman animals must either be "wild" or live in a "zoo" is a false dichotomy. Mortality and morbidity statistics suggest that both human and nonhuman animals typically flourish best when free-living in a secure environment, i.e. neither "wild" nor physically confined.
Armageddon as a solution to the ills of the world? When Gautama Buddha (or David Benatar, etc) urges an end to suffering, the rhetorical question is sometimes posed: why not sterilise the planet? Yet anyone ethically serious about minimising avoidable suffering must devise solutions that are both technically and sociologically credible. Plotting, say, the detonation of multi-gigaton thermonuclear Doomsday devices fails the test of sociological credibility.
Of course, critics would claim that using biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering will never be sociologically credible either - whether for human and nonhuman animals. This remains to be shown.
Da St, you don't want to be harmed, or let others harm you.
Yet you endorse other sentient beings being harmed, and the right of others to harm them. Perhaps this position is tenable if one is special - in some morally relevant sense of "special". But is this really the case? Admittedly, a brutal Darwinian struggle was simply way the way of the world until recently: to say that one was "against" or predation or starvation and so forth was empty rhetoric. Such phenomena entailed were terrible but not immoral ("'ought' implies 'can'") The same could be said until recently of e.g. famine afflicting members of other ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa: a terrible but not immoral phenomenon. This is not so any longer. Power entails complicity. Biotechnology promises a future where this is no longer the case for sentient beings from other species as well as other ethnic groups.
"Exciting times"? Yes - at least if we're morally serious about using technology to reduce the burden of suffering in the living world. From in vitro meat to the CRISPR revolution to preimplantation genetic screening, a host of new technologies mean that Gautama Buddha's vision ("May all that hath life be delivered from suffering") can become a practical policy option - over centuries perhaps, but conceivably sooner. Of course, maybe we'll decide to retain the biology of suffering indefinitely. Until now, we didn't have a choice.
Mariana, the well-being of all sentient life is a theologically unorthodox definition of hell. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", said Arthur C. Clark. Maybe so; but none of the interventions to underwrite the well-being of nonhuman animals I've discussed rely on anything but recognisable extensions of existing technologies. If you believe that their application violates some fundamental law of Nature, could you specify which one? Or was your use of the term "magic" rhetorical hyperbole?
Martyn, is it ethical to embark on ecologically far-reaching programs to prevent suffering, death and disease in young humans but unethical to embark on ecologically far-reaching programs to prevent suffering, death and disease in beings of comparable sentience and sapience? This is arbitrary speciesism.
[Most people don't believe you if you mention that malaria has killed around half the people who ever lived. The forget its distribution was once far more widespread and most outright fatalities occur in the very young:
Loss of autonomy? Martyn, assume for the sake of argument that the rationale of the abolitionist project is false. The relief of suffering is of no moral weight whatsoever - regardless of race or species. Instead, all that matters is safeguarding the autonomy of individual agents. Granted this premise, there can be no loss of autonomy more severely catastrophic to the individual than to starve to death or to be eaten alive, disembowelled or asphyxiated - although to be held captive in conditions so severe that you have to be prevented (via debeaking, de-clawing, tail-docking, castration etc) from mutilating yourself must come close (cf. factory farming). A critic might respond: what about the freedom of some sentient beings to harm other sentient beings? Doesn't any restriction of one's freedom to harm others and physically interfere with their lives and bodies constrain one's own autonomy? Well, in a sense, yes. But libertarianism isn't an ethic of Freedom To Harm Others, but rather Freedom Not To Be Harmed.
"Bland and insipid" Mastery of our reward circuitry promises states of controlled exhilaration beyond the bounds of normal human experience. Future life can be more exciting than anything physiologically feasible today.
Stefano, if there were sentient beings who didn't find despair, uncontrollable panic or excruciating pain disvaluable, then perhaps trying to impose alien values on such beings would amount to an unjustified universalism. But for reasons we simply don't understand, a normative aspect is built into the very nature of such experiences. It's often said matters of fact can't decide questions of ethics. Yet if one's values rest on an assumption that turns out to be false, then this is good reason to discount them. Natural selection has ensured that each of us is vulnerable to a genetic fitness-enhancing lie, namely that one is the centre of the universe. Other people - and indeed all other sentient beings - appear to have only walk-on parts. By contrast, impartial universalist conceptions of ethics and decision-theoretic rationality have been genetically maladaptive - a recipe for ending up as someone else's lunch.
However, if we take the scientific world-picture seriously, then we can't take the egocentric illusion - or indeed the anthropocentric illusion - seriously either. Behaving sociopathically towards other sentient beings is no more rational than stealing from one's own pension fund, i.e. not the hallmark of the hyper-rational super-sociopath but the action of an agent who is fundamentally deluded. For evolutionary reasons, each of us is prey to the egocentric illusion: the powerful sense that I'm in some way special. But most of us recognise that it's unscientific. This needn't stop us promoting the freedom of the individual as a recipe for the well-being of us all.
Mark, yes, on the face of it, lifelong well-being sounds a recipe for stagnation. Isn't discontent the motor of progress? Perhaps we recall intracranially self-stimulating rats ("wireheading"), heroin addicts who care for nothing beyond their next fix, or the soma-pacified masses in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. However, the experimental evidence suggests that raising hedonic set-points will promote the opposite outcome. Low mood is associated with behavioural suppression - a condition of "learned helplessness" and behavioural despair. By contrast, enhancing mood tends not merely to enhance motivation, but also to enhance the range of different stimuli an organism finds rewarding. Happy, extroverted people with high hedonic set-points typically seek out novelty. They take on new challenges and seek fresh adventures. It's depressives who tend to get "stuck in a rut". Other things being equal, radical hedonic set-point elevation makes stagnation less likely - either for the individual or civilisation as a whole.
* * *
Anti-libertarian? Mike, the freedom of sentient beings to flourish without being physically hurt, harmed or killed ought to be fundamental to libertarian ethics. Freedom to live physically unmolested is very different from the freedom to molest others.
* * *
Party animals? All sentient beings deserve to have fun...
("How animals get high")
* * *
[Martyn Fogg: My principal tactic has been a sort of reductio ad absurdum. On the assumption that it is easy to see that deliberate mass extinction is wrong intuitively, I have tried to get adherents of the Hedonistic Imperative to admit clearly that this is the logical ramification of their philosophy. This is been very difficult to do, as David has many followers skilled both in persuasive argument and sophistry.
Four arguments that have been directed back at me, to try and show that mass extinction would NOT be involved are as follows.
(1) The taxonomic abstraction argument. Using the fact that there is disagreement about the exact definition of a species, it is then posited that there is no such thing as a species anyway. Hence it makes no sense to even speak of mass extinction.
(2) The tweaking argument. Even if all currently known penguins, which all eat fish and squid, are to be eliminated in the wild, they can be replaced with penguins genetically "tweaked" to be vegetarians: i.e. into filter feeders drifting around sucking up plankton. Hence, again, no genuine extinction will have occurred. Similar tweaking arguments are made for turning all predators into vegans.
(3) The zoo argument. If predators are to be eliminated from the wild then mass extinction is not necessitated because a few specimens of each species can be kept in zoos and fed in vitro meat and fish, or ersatz flesh deriving from plants.
(4) The separate domains argument. When professional biologists become involved in the debate and put forward arguments concerning ecosystem flourishing and the necessity for predators, or the endless generation of novelty and value via natural evolution, these are flatly dismissed. Ethics and biology are different domains, it is said. What is right and wrong has nothing to do with biology or science.
For me, these arguments fail utterly to convince that Hedonistic Imperialists are not in the business of mass extinction. They are sophistical smokescreens used to cover up the horror of what their philosophy dictates. Such tactics, I feel, are not just to soft soap the philosophy itself, but to make it palatable for those who already believe it since even they, at some level, know that genocide is involved and that there is an intuitive wrongness to genocide."
My response to Martyn's critique:
When the American composer John Cage was asked, ‘Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?’, Cage responded, ‘I think there’s just the right amount". Let's for now make an assumption that I won't (here) attempt to defend, namely that other things being equal we should aim to reduce - and ultimately phase out - the biology of involuntary suffering. The "other things being equal" caveat is clearly critical. Martyn (and others) would argue that other things are never going to be equal.
One way to phase out involuntary suffering is via selective or total species extinction. Almost everyone agrees that mass genocide would be both grossly immoral - and in any case, it's sociologically incredible. David Benatar's solution to the problem of (human) suffering, namely human extinction via voluntary childlessness, is technically infeasible too, because it falls victim to the Argument From Selection Pressure. Environmental tinkering isn't going to abolish the biology of suffering either. Therefore, if we're morally serious about phasing out involuntary suffering, then we'll need to tackle its genetic roots.
Rightly or wrongly, most people are ethically opposed to allowing the extinction in the wild of free-living species whose members do not harm Homo sapiens (cf. the Anopheles mosquito, as distinct from, say, free-living penguins). Why exactly? The vast majority of critics aren't ever going to visit Antarctica themselves. Rather, they've seen penguins in a wildlife documentaries and think they look aesthetically cool. Viewers don't imagine what it's like to be desperately hungry, to lose one's only chick to a predator or to slow starvation, or be terrorised and mauled by a killer whale. Nor do we imagine what it's like to be a fish eaten alive. And the really nasty stuff "gets left on the cutting room floor", as David Attenborough puts it. Mixing up aesthetics is dangerous. I recall how at the age of four-years-old I painted a big black swastika on my new red tricycle and then rode around the block in my stylish Nazi tricycle. Thankfully, my ancestral namesake soon realised that morality trumps aesthetics. I'm not convinced that critics of compassionate stewardship of Nature have learned the same lesion. Either way, some of us argue that what is truly ugly - ugly on the inside - is suffering.
OK, on to Martyn's critique of "The Genocidal Imperative".
1 and 2. The orthodox definition of a species involves the capacity of members of a population to interbreed and produce viable and fertile offspring. If so desired by species essentialists, any compassionate genetic and behavioural tweaking of obligate carnivores could be done in a way that would, in principle, allow back-crossing with archaic lions, penguins or whatever. This constraint need not stop a dedicated speciesist essentialist from stipulatively defining any penguin, lion (etc) who didn't harm others as not a "true" penguin, lion (etc). Thus we might stipulatatively define someone endowed with genetic enhancements that elevate hedonic set-point, retard ageing or amplify general intelligence as not a "true" human. Therefore, conferring these traits on all humans would amount to genocide. QED.
I don't think we need to take genocide-by-definition too seriously.
3. As every cubic metre of the planet becomes computationally accessible to surveillance, micromanagement and control, critics such as Deep Greens claim that humans are increasingly living in a "zoo". Look around you. What is "natural"? You are free-living. You are not caged in a prison - despite the four walls that surround you. Clothes, sanitation, supermarkets, healthcare services, electricity....compared to archaic Homo sapiens, we aren't "wild". Yet we still roam free. For sure, the streets are policed. We're governed by the rule of law. But policing allows us to flourish better than if human predators could terrorise us and physically harm us at will.
And what of our human "species essence"? Well, urban humans could still mate and produce viable offspring if coupled with Amazonian Indians or Andaman Islanders. Therefore we still belong to the same species. So why can't nonhuman animals - beings of a sentience and sapience comparable to human infants and toddlers - be well-nourished, healthy, safe from being physically molested, and free-living too ? A domestic dog doesn't deserve to be starved, asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive. So why allow his wild counterpart to suffer such a fate now such horrors are technically optional. Realistically, we'll first need to close and outlaw factory farms and slaughterhouses. It's fanciful to imagine us systematically helping sentient beings before we stop systematically harming them. I doubt this will happen before the in vitro meat revolution later next decade and beyond.
4. Yes, like famine and Anopheles mosquitoes, predation can play a valuable role in keeping human and nonhuman animal populations from exploding. Ecological "balance" is thereby preserved. What's in question is not whether their role is valuable but whether it's irreplaceable. Access to contraceptives combined with education on family planning has proved that Malthusian catastrophe isn't inevitable for humans. In principle, cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception in tomorrow's Nature reserves can do the same for nonhuman animals. The plight of e.g. marine crustaceans must await an era of mature molecular nanotechnology.
Novelty and value? Naively, we might imagine that phasing out some of the nastier alleles and allelic combinations in human and nonhuman animals will reduce genetic diversity. Will we be left with a genetic monoculture? For example, a thousand different variants of the cystic fibrosis gene are likely to be lost to the historical gene libraries as the disorder is cured. In practice, the CRISPR genome-editing revolution promises unimaginable genetic diversity at a previously unimaginable pace. This is because genome-editing allows novelties previously forbidden by natural selection - forbidden because such adaptations would have entailed crossing "fitness gaps".
Value judgements? With an engaging lack of self-awareness, many scientists argue that science ought (sic) to be value-free. But conservation biology in its traditional guise is an explicitly normative discipline. No doubt many of its practitioners may not think of their discipline as such. Conservation biology can seem value-free. This is only because such values are still so widely internalised and shared. The suffering of individual nonhuman animals doesn't matter - only ecosystems and the species it supports. Conservation biology is no less normative than the nascent discipline of welfare biology - or a future of paradise engineering as envisaged by HI.
So does post-Darwinian life entail "genocide"? I'd argue that a transhumanist future of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness - not least, life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss - won't be nearly as bad as it may sound...
* * *
Martyn, we should support the principle of Equal Consideration of Interests for human and nonhuman predators alike. For what it's worth, most people would say my views on (human) predators who behave in ways that harm young children as outrageously pro-predator. They should be given secure five star-hospitality indefinitely, treated with respect, and commiserated for the appalling bad luck of being endowed with socially unacceptable appetites. But equal consideration for the interests of human and nonhuman predators isn't a license for neglecting the interests of the victims not to be harmed. I'm slightly puzzled why all your rhetorical firepower has been directed at protecting the interests of predatory beings and none at helping their victims.
...recall that we don't value and care for human toddlers merely because they will eventually grow to be mature language using adult humans. Toddlers with a progressive disorder who will never live to see their third birthday are (rightly) accorded at least as much care and respect as their healthy contemporaries.
And the Is-Ought Problem ("Hume's Guillotine")? Well, for reasons that natural science simply doesn't understand, some states of the world, for example uncontrollable panic or suicidal despair, are endowed with a normative aspect. If I'm in excruciating agony, then it's not an "open question" (cf. G.E. Moore's Open Question argument) whether that agony is bad or not. The evaluative aspect is built into the very nature of the experience itself.
Now maybe I'm special. Natural science says otherwise. From the "point of view of the universe", so to speak, I'm just a normal, naturally evolved organic robot who is as prey to the genetically adaptive egocentric illusion as everyone else. Insofar as agony or despair are bad for me, then they are bad for sentient beings everywhere. Morality and decision-theoretic rationality alike suggest we should act accordingly.
Alas the devil is in the details.
"Genocide"? There's also an important distinction between use of sterilants to make Plasmodium-transmitting species of Anopheles mosquito extinct in the wild - an ecologically far-reaching initiative that commands wide public acceptance - and any proposal to use cross-species immunocontraception to regulate population sizes of "charismatic mega-fauna" in tomorrow's wildlife parks in preference to starvation and predation. The latter option no more constitutes "genocide" than does human access to contraceptives and advice on family planning.
* * *
Mark, although I happen to be a utilitarian, we shouldn't tie the abolitionist project into any one particular ethical theory. For example, many of the framers of the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) - with its commitment to the well-being of all sentience - aren't ethical utilitarians of any kind. And Gautama Buddha, presumably, was a proto-Buddhist. Moreover, most ethical positions can be consequentialised, just as utilitarian ethics in its sophisticated indirect guises increasingly resembles other ethical systems. Thus most critics of utilitarian ethics appeal to the bad consequences that would follow from (supposedly) utilitarian policy prescriptions. Conversely, many thoughtful utilitarians favour enshrining all sorts of absolute rights in law.
Martyn, suppose that in next century's Nature reserves, sentient beings don't harm each other - the dystopian nightmare you warn against. Would you urge re-introducing archaic predators, scrapping cross-species immunocontraception, and a return to the traditional ways of Darwinian life?
* * *
Outright extinction? Daryl, I'm personally inclined to agree with you. But the prospect of species extinction - even of an obscure species of beetle they had never previously heard of - makes some people upset. Hence the case for meshing compassionate conservation with abolitionist bioethics. Whether post-humans will really have "wildlife parks" I don't know. But preserving a more civilised approximation to Darwinian life keeps the option open (though posthuman superintelligence could presumably re-create any species from scratch.)
* * *
("Chimpanzees are not people, New York court decides")
The 13th amendment says it all: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States". Sentient beings should not be treated as property.
[on feline psychopaths]
Another sensitive exploration of the key issues...
Bad Kitty, Fascist Kitty
Whenever some pundit announces "science proves plants feel pain", you know your in for a rough time.
[on the alleged strangeness of abolishing suffering]
("Strange Animal Problems With Even Stranger Solutions")
"Natural" must count as one of the most abused words in the English language. Most of us try to ensure that our lives are as "unnatural" as possible - from wearing clothes to collecting consumables to using the latest and greatest IT: the list goes on and on. Yet proposals to tackle the biology of suffering at source still trigger a knee-jerk "not natural" objection. Perhaps we should add "naturally inspired" to the label.
[on transhumanism in Germany]
"Life is too short to learn German", said Mark Twain. Fortunately, transhumanists aim for radical life-extension.
("Transhumanist David Pearce will uns zu glücklicheren organischen Robotern machen")
More German below.
I'm much more sympathetic to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis than John McWhorter in his recent critique.
But a compelling case can be made in any natural language for transcending human nature.
* * *
The sinister neurobiology of Schadenfreude (German: "harm-joy"):
http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/09/peoples-suprising-empathy-with-the-pain-of-their-enemies.php What did Milgram demonstrate?
* * *
Transhumanism as conceived by the National Review:
"There are no heresies in a dead religion", said André Suares. Transhumanists tend to be secular rationalists; but we are, so to speak, a very broad church. All transhumanists seek to overcome our human biological limitations. Yet within the transhumanist movement, there is a distinct difference in emphasis between the libertarian and individualistic current - ably represented today by Zoltan Istvan - and what we might call utilitarian, left-liberal and neo-Buddhist strands of the movement. Thus the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentience:
In short, transhumanism is very much work-in-progress.
[on happiness and transhumanism]
Selling eugenics to the Germans: not as easy as it sounds...
Transhumanism and happiness
(apparently the talk only starts at 4:09. I never listen to the weird alien who bears my name, so I didn't know.)
My co-presenter was the delightfully life-loving Riva-Melissa Tez
Riva and I were going to show a video and then take questions. But a technical glitch meant we ended up extemporising instead.
Afterwards, Riva interviewed me. Here is the video
"Tory part of the problem is that "eudaimonia" is a contested term: "human flourishing" is the most common translation / definition, though what our "flourishing" entails is itself contested. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia) Quite aside from the species-specific nature of the concept, the molecular substrates, and means of amplification, of anything so nebulous and ill-defined as "eudaimonia" are murky too. Also, whereas educated people are familiar with the term "hedonic" (as in "hedonic set-point", "hedonic treadmill", "hedonic tone", hedonic range", etc) I worry that talk of "eudaimonic well-being" may leave many non-academics scratching their heads - unless they are well versed in philosophy.
That said, we want to get away from the notion that life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss amounts to a scenario of "hedonism" in the popular sense, i.e. empty pleasure-seeking. Or worse, "getting high". "Hedonistic", in particular, conjectures up images of well-being that is shallow, one-dimensional and amoral. Posthuman bliss can be rich, multi-faceted and profound.
Martyn, HI doesn't entail us becoming lotus eaters or milksops. If, for example, we want to play fanatically competitive team sports, there is nothing to stop folk that way inclined doing so - and plunging to the lowest rung of their hedonic range if they lose. But that lowest rung can still be hedonically richer than today's peak experiences.
...hah, lest anyone worry for my sanity, I was just trying to nudge certain Christians towards a more charitable conception of God's intentions, not lay claim to the attributes of divinity...Seriously, it's a troubling scenario: humans will become transhumans who become posthumans who become gods. But what to us might seem God-like powers won't be enough. For the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency may still fall far short of purging suffering from the multiverse. Are we doomed to be ineffective altruists? Let's hope this bleak suspicion is misplaced.
"Optimistic realism". Dave, yes, I hope we can build a civilisation where it seems the world is conspiring to help you. A major engineering challenge, alas.
Karina, do you believe that the evolution of recursively self-improving software systems, genetic algorithms (etc) is driven by suffering? Mechanisms of feedback inhibition are vital to organic and silicon robots alike. But the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range - and approximate hedonic set-point - are parameters whose values rational agents should be free to choose.
("Richard Dawkins: 'immoral' to allow Down's syndrome babies to be born")
Anecdotally, people with Down syndrome tend to be unusually happy. A study reported in American Journal of Medical Genetics, "Self-perceptions from people with Down syndrome" (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajmg.a.34235/abstract) bears this out: "...nearly 99% of people with DS indicated that they were happy with their lives, 97% liked who they are, and 96% liked how they look". What a sobering contrast with neurotypicals.
[on saving reductive physicalism]
"Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
But do we have any normal theory of consciousness?
("Does reductive physicalism entail monistic idealism? A testable conjecture about the nature of the physical world." by David Pearce.)
Mark, perhaps see Galen Strawson:
("Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?")
A growing minority of researchers are willing to entertain some form of naturalistic panpsychism. But perhaps see Philip Goff: "Why panpsychism doesn't help explain consciousness":
(I think Goff overstates his case; but if all that existed were fields of "mind dust", then we'd be p-zombies in all but name.)
David Chalmers believes that the binding / combination problem is so serious we should contemplate dualism:
However, I know other smart people who regard the binding problem as no more than a puzzle. I'm with Chalmers on the seriousness - just not on the willingness to give up reductive physicalism. Phenomenal binding long preceded the evolution of mammals. Yes, the Cartesian theatre metaphor is flawed, not least because each us is, in part, the inner theatre s/he inspects. Naturally, Dennettians would not be happy with a world-simulation model of conscious mind in the first place.
* * *
A lot of futurology is really just extrapolation - of varying degrees of technological and sociological plausibility. But talk of "digital sentience" and "mind-uploading" assumes a radical discontinuity instead. Phenomenal minds will "switch on" in our computers by means unknown at some unspecified future date. IMO, the existence any clean digital abstraction layer or software-based bound phenomenal minds rests on faith rather than empirical evidence. I'm curious what if anything would convince prophets of digital sentience that classical digital zombies aren't going to wake...
* * *
Thanks Kaj. All good stuff. And yet...
Are we any closer on the Baars / Metzinger account to understanding why we're not p-zombies? On the face of it, an insentient molecular duplicate of you or me has all the properties causally sufficient to behave in the exactly same way. To explain the behaviour of such a p-zombie, apparently there's no need to invoke consciousness at all.
If reductive physicalism is to be saved, I think we may need to revise our notions both of the intrinsic nature of the physical AND the quasi-classicality of neurons.
But if anyone here doesn't feel like swallowing two impossible ideas before breakfast, I'll totally understand.
* * *
Rebecca, contemplating the nature of neutrinos is enough to give even the most rabid panpsychist / monistic idealist pause for thought. Does each of the several trillion neutrinos that passed though writer and reader alike since the start of this sentience embody a self-intimating micro-experience? True or false, whether the real story of consciousness will be kinder to robust commonsense is unclear. Maybe "mysterians" like Colin McGinn are right.
Mark, all one ever knows, except by inference, are the contents of one's own conscious mind. Even here, we are prone to confabulation and contamination by theory. Yet science cannot find a place for consciousness within its ontology. Something has to give. But what? Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" no longer has the cult status it once enjoyed. But consciousness isn't an anomaly for materialism. ("This year's Nobel Prize goes to the solver of the Hard Problem of Consciousness") It's a catastrophe.
Mark, you could outwit the cognitive abilities of even posthuman superintelligence to predict your behaviour if you became the quantum analogue of Luke Rhinehart's Dice Man. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dice_Man) But the time evolution of the universal wavefunction is continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic. And all I'm trying to do on physicalism.com is spell out just how desperately hard it will be to save reductive physicalism.
Dave, well, that's the nub of my prediction in the paper; they won't become sentient! Classical digital computers, classically parallel connectionist devices, classical dynamical systems (etc) will always be ignorant zombies. Hence no "mind uploading" - and no nonbiological artificial general superintelligence (AGI) - or at least, not short of a era of mature quantum computing centuries or millennia hence. That said, IMO "tool AI "will surpasses human abilities in countless ways. Smart robots might still kill us. And IMO a partial Kurzweilian fusion of AI and organic robots over the next few centuries and beyond is credible,
But a digital Sasha Shulgin? No.
* * *
Peter, IMO working quantum computers have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Their ability to talk about their own consciousness and formulate the phenomenal binding problem is a late evolutionary innovation. I'll be surprised if their nonbiological counterparts will have much to say on the matter this century; I could be wrong. :-)
* * *
Let's assume for the sake of argument that materialism / traditional physicalism is true. Consider Eric Schwitzgebel's "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious".
To make the example more compelling, let's assume that the population of the USA agrees to participate in an experiment and replicates some of the coarse-grained functionality that we associate with the brains of organic robots like us. Individual Americans use electromagnetic radiation to communicate rather than the electrochemical synapses of a population of neurons.
If we are reductive physicalists, then at no stage in the experiment will bound phenomenal objects or a bound phenomenal subjects of experience "switch on". The USA is a zombie. The system as a whole can be described functionally in information-processing terms. But al that exists will be varying patterns of skull-bound American minds.
What about non-reductive physicalism?
No, I certainly can't prove that bound phenomenal objects, or a phenomenal subject of experience, doesn't "switch on" at some stage in the experiment. But such "strong" emergence would be unexplained and inexplicable. For we couldn't derive the properties of this (hypothetical!) pan-continental subject of experience from the behaviour and properties of its underlying constituents.
And that's exactly the dilemma we face with a population of 86 billion odd membrane-bound and supposedly classical neurons. Even if a neuron does support rudimentary consciousness (as seems quite likely IMO), then we still need to explain how to get beyond classical "mind dust".
The binding problem is hard.
* * *
("The evolutionary and genetic origins of consciousness in the Cambrian Period over 500 million years ago")
Wolf, well, there are clearly affinities between this view and Russell's neutral monism. But neutral monism conjectures that reality consists in something that is neither physical nor experiential. Whereas my working assumption is that that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
Matt, until the creation of reversible thalamic bridges or whatever allows the equivalent of a Vulcan mind-meld, you'll never know for sure that I'm not a p-zombie - if your ontology allows for such creatures. Rather, I take the existence of "raw feels" as given. Less commonly among those who take consciousness seriously, I believe that the world is exhaustively described by the equations of tomorrow's physics and their solutions. The real problem for the new idealists is phenomenal binding, which seems not just classically forbidden, i.e. we're not Jamesian "mind dust", but also nonclassically impossible in a warm, wet, noisy CNS. If reductive physicalism is to be saved, then the solution, I (very) tentatively believe, is that the supposed classicality of the mind-brain is an artefact of our coarse-grained tools of investigation. Max Tegmark and a majority of neuroscientists would disagree.
We shall see.
Matt, yes, the existence of "raw feels" is self-intimating. Ouch! Sure, there is nothing to stop you programming a non-sentient system to type out identical words. The propositional content they convey wouldn't be true. So is the insentient system in question lying? This term suggests an insight into what it lacks which by definition the system can't possess.
Oh, no doubt we all believe all sorts of things that aren't true. But what is the nature of the error I'm supposed to be making if I experience a searing pain? Ah, perhaps you merely seem to be in agony, says the village sceptic helpfully. Alas this is simply a re-description of the problem.
....The hope is that if some kind of coarse-grained functionalism is true, we can abstract away from supposedly irrelevant neuronal implementation details and digitally simulate the human mind-brain. Take care of the functionality of the human connectome, and the phenomenology will take care of itself. I admire the work that e.g. Henry Markram and his colleagues are doing on the Blue Brain project, just as I admire the work of e.g. Douglas Lenat and his colleagues on Cyc. In each case, both the successes and the failures may be instructive.
What difference would it make if we become zombies? James, recall on my perspective, to subtract consciousness would be to subtract the "fire" in the equations. Without consciousness, there would be no world because consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
By contrast, the materialist assumes that the "fire" in the equations is devoid of phenomenal properties. Consciousness inexplicably emerges several billion years later. For all we know, consciousness could disappear again without making any causal-functional difference to the physical world.
Consciousness is inconceivable to a p-zombie. So the notional p-zombie can be interpreted as believing that the concept of a p-zombie is unintelligible.
For very different reasons, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then a p-zombie is impossible too.
But for a materialist who acknowledges his own consciousness, the spectre of p-zombies is real. This is because he has no idea why he's not one of them himself. To justify his belief he's not surrounded by p-zombies, he can fall back only on the argument from analogy and the principle of the uniformity of Nature (and one day perhaps the ability to construct thalamic bridges etc. But Vulcan mind-melds are still a long way off.
* * *
Peter, consciousness "evolves" in the sense that states of mind in the late Cambrian or in babies is different from consciousness in contemporary human adults. Yet in another sense, Darwinian evolution doesn't explain consciousness at all. Thus engineer a physically type-identical copy of you or me in the laboratory and the consciousness of the person created will - presumably - be identical too.
Max Tegmark? Well, having discounted the idea that bound phenomenal consciousness could be a manifestation of macroscopic quantum coherence, Tegmark conjectures it's a novel form of matter: "perceptronium". This is a wonderfully catchy title; but my physics is more conservative.
Giulio Tononi? For a good critique:
* * *
Idealism? The everyday classical world is a mind-dependent simulation - though you'd be ill-advised to step in front of a bus unless you're sure you're only dreaming. Traditional idealists (but not me!) believe reality itself is mind-dependent. This would leave the success of science something of a miracle.
* * *
An On-Off switch? Or a binding switch?
("Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain")
* * *
Peter, Schrödinger's cat is alive and well and living in sunny Brighton - at least in one low amplitude part of the universal wavefunction. Classical physics is false theory of the world. If our neurons were discrete classical objects, then the neuronal population of the CNS could no more (fleetingly) constitute a unitary subject of experience than, say, a crowd of 50,000 skull-bound Chelsea supporters could constitute a phenomenal Über-mind if they perform a Mexican wave. Recall that as a world-simulationist, I argue that what each us apprehends as the classical macroscopic world is a mind-dependent simulation - a simulation running at c.1013 quantum-coherent frames per second. This approximate figure is quantum mind debunker Max Tegmark's calculation of effective macroscopic decoherence times in the warm and wet CNS. Of course, maybe this conjecture will be empirically falsified - either because the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the mind-brain (as in Hameroff and Penrose's Orch-OR theory) or because all we discover at such times-scales is just "noise". But this issue will be decided experimentally.
Peter, let's say you're watching a jumbo-jet take off from the runway. You can be awake or dreaming. For our purposes, it doesn't matter here. Where exactly is the phenomenal plane? On a standard neuroscience story, a bunch of neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-detectors (etc) are synchronously firing in your visual cortex. On the face of it, they can't be phenomenally "bound" into a unitary dynamical object populating a unitary experiential field of a unitary experiential subject. This would seem classically forbidden. And yet unless you have the neurological syndromes of "motion blindness" or simultanagnosia (etc), you behold a phenomenal plane taking off from the tarmac, i.e. you're not just patterns of classical "mind dust". Compare the crowd of football supporters or the population of the USA. Both are zombies. Why aren't you? It's this structural mismatch between the phenomenology of our minds and our cortical architecture that helps push David Chalmers towards his naturalistic dualism. However, _if_ we still want to save reductive physicalism, a possible explanation is that neuronal edge-detectors, motion detectors, colour detectors exist fleetingly as a coherent macroscopic superposition, yielding a perfect structural match between the formal and subjective properties of mind. The elephant trap here is thermally-induced decoherence. Max Tegmark (cf. "Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer" http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S00200255000005177) is widely held to have debunked quantum mind with his calculations of macroscopic decoherence time-scales in a warm, wet and noisy CNS - not Hameroff's milliseconds but picoseconds or less! Everybody knows this kind of a temporal resolution is irrelevant to explaining why we're not zombies.
Well, I'm saying Tegmark's presupposition should be treated as an empirically testable hypothesis, not an axiomatic assumption.
If by contrast you assume with Tegmark all we'd discover is "noise", them you'd be in distinguished company.
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Dave, yes, for around a tenth of one's life, one is deceived by zombies, i.e. one is dreaming. And if a world-simulationist rather than a direct realist story of perception is correct, then one only ever encounters zombies in one's waking life too. The morally critical difference is that when we're awake, the zombies of our world simulations tend causally to co-vary with sentient beings.
"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?"
(John Archibald Wheeler)
* * *
Dings da, the "unity of the self" I argue for is extremely thin if it really holds only for Tegmarkian time-scales. My assumption is that what Daniel Kolak unenticingly calls "empty individualism" is true. But do you think that open individualism can be reconciled with reductive physicalism? (a link for anyone unfamiliar with these terms:
* * *
Mark, I deliberately dodged that question. [one superintelligence or many?] There are immense technical and sociological challenges to building a unitary SuperMind - as distinct from a bunch of interconnected individual minds as exist today. There's a curious division within the philosophical, AI and futurist community between people who recognise the phenomenal binding problem is fundamental to the future of intelligent mind in the universe - and other researchers who regard the binding problem as a mere anomalous puzzle. That was the point of my recent paper on physicalism.com. It's not that I expect many folk to buy my purported solution, but rather to recognise that the alternatives we've come up with to date are at least as dire.
* * *
If our waking / dreaming brains were classical, we'd all be zombies IMO. Seancho, yes, I think a big part of the problem may be our false theory of perception. Perhaps few people would acknowledge being perceptual naïve realists. But implicitly, we often do think and talk as though we had some sort of direct access to the mind-independent world - a world of cheesy wet brains and classical material objects. That's why I think it's best to talk in terms of mind-dependent world-simulations and inferential realism rather than perception.
Randal, if we want scientifically to test whether organic robots are conscious, then we can e.g. build reversible thalamic bridges. The conjecture I explore predicts that our fellow organic robots are sentient but Eugene Goostman's successors - and putative whole-brain emulations! - will be zombies. Whether building reversible thalamic bridges or detecting mesoscopic quantum coherent states at Tegmarkian time-scales is more technically challenging I'm not sure. Either way, these questions fall within the realm of science rather than idle philosophising.
Ben, recall Rutherford's quote that "All science is either physics or stamp collecting". If reductive physicalism is true, then in principle we should be able to derive everything - including all the properties of the organic robots reading this sentience - from the Standard Model or its more speculative extensions. Sadly, what we can't derive - at least on a materialist or traditional physicalist ontology - is consciousness, bound or otherwise. So was Einstein wrong to believe no "element of reality" should be missing from the mathematical formalism of physics? Can reductive physicalism be saved? Why aren't we zombies? Sometimes the reader needs to know a little of an author's background assumptions.
Mike, we need to be wary of over-using the "woo" epithet. The intrinsic nature of the physical - Hawking's "fire" in the equations - is a huge problem. Yes, some folk are convinced that the intrinsic nature of the physical has got nothing to do with consciousness. But we might just as well talk about classical "woo". ["Consciousness is mysterious. The emergence of quasi-classicality from the underlying formalism of QFT is mysterious. So maybe these two mysteries cancel each other out".] Um, no - or at least, not without a great deal of spadework!
David, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. This is not David Chalmers' position, of course. Chalmers believes that neither classical physics nor quantum mechanics can solve the phenomenal binding problem...
David, my argument isn't that the fleeting structural signature of bound phenomenal objects in the CNS - "the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave" - discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Rather the argument runs as follows. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the existence of phenomenal binding entails an unsuspected match between the properties of our world-simulations and the microstructure of the CNS at naively ridiculously short time-scales. If it transpires that no such match exists - this is an experimentally falsifiable prediction - reductive physicalism fails. Plan B? I don't know. A Chalmersian approach, perhaps.
Peter, when a smart and scientifically literate academic makes a weird-sounding claim, the reasons s/he does so are often illuminating even if one is sure that the claim itself must be mistaken. Recall that materialism and traditional forms of physicalism strongly predict that we should be zombies. The existence of at least one non-zombie rules out this hypothesis - discounting Dennettians who deny their own sentience on the grounds that their materialist ontology makes consciousness impossible.
In response, David Chalmers carefully considers Russellian monism / Strawsonian physicalism. Might consciousness be the "fire" in the equations? Chalmers regards Russellian monism / Strawsonian physicalism as live contenders; but in the end, he concludes that reductive physicalism simply can't be saved. Chalmers reckons that the argument from microphysical simplicity and the seeming structural mismatch between the phenomenology of mind and the microstructure of the brain are insurmountable obstacles to a successful reduction.
I argue against Chalmers in http://www.physicalism.com - and advance a bizarre sounding-conjecture of my own, i.e. Tegmark's reductio of quantum mind is best treated as a falsifiable prediction instead. But assuming that this conjecture is falsified, perhaps I'd fall back on some sort of "strong" emergence or a Chalmers-style naturalistic dualism - though I regard both positions as defeatist.
Peter, David Chalmers is well versed not just in academic philosophy, but quantum theory and neuroscience too. He's author of the splendid little introductory volume, "What Is This thing Called Science." Yes, for what's it worth, in my view Chalmers' Argument from Microphysical Simplicity against reductive physicalism isn't watertight. If instead of trying to reduce the phenomenology of mind to a particle-based ontology, we take a quantum field-theoretic approach, then the vast [conventionally infinite] number of degrees of freedom of these fundamental fields yield the diversity of values needed to explain the diversity of phenomenal experience. However, this claim is controversial. And Chalmers' reasons for doubting that phenomenal binding could be a manifestation of macroscopic quantum coherence are shared by a majority of neuroscientists and physicist alike.
("What Is This Thing Called Science?" Third Edition.)
Peter, what does Hawking mean by our ignorance of "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" He means that if you write down the Wheeler–DeWitt equation or whatever, this doesn't, by itself, create a universe.
Free will? No such beast IMO, though a perhaps surprising amount of experimental physics assumes we possess something akin to it. Super-determinism has been described as the "ultimate conspiracy theory"
[The Everett approach is deterministic too, but only in the context of the evolution of the universal wave function rather than any particular quasi-classical branch.]
Even reputable science journals sometimes gloss over these "loopholes"(cf. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/context/bell%E2%80%99s-math-showed-quantum-weirdness-rang-true ; "Bell’s math showed that quantum weirdness rang true").
Joshua, recall the primary reason why David Chalmers rejects the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical in favour of naturalistic dualism, namely the structural mismatch between the phenomenology of our bound phenomenal minds and the microstructure of the mind-brain. Neurobiology reveals nothing that resembles bound phenomenal objects ("local" binding) or a unitary phenomenal self ("global" binding). Yet apart from in a dreamless sleep, we're not just patterns of classical neuronal mind-dust. Well, my best guess is that there is a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of mind and the formalism of physics. Assume, contra Penrose et al., that the superposition principle holds universally. If so, then it's possible to calculate approximately how long neuronal superpositions ("Schrödinger's cat" states) can endure before being "destroyed", i.e. lost in an effectively thermodynamically irreversible way via thermally induced decoherence to the extra-neural environment: femtoseconds, perhaps even attoseconds or less. And so the obvious answer to the question "What's it like to instantiate a succession of sub-femtosecond quantum coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature detectors?" is "Nothing at all" - because a femtosecond is too short to experience anything! But here's the rub. One reason most people can't take the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical seriously is that such a conjecture makes the world's fundamental units of consciousness too small. But no less counterintuitively, the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical also makes world's fundamental units of consciousness too short: ludicrously so! However, IMO this very shortcoming holds they key to cracking the Hard Problem. At such temporal resolutions, the mind-brain doesn't exist as a classical ensemble of discrete neuronal feature processors, but instead as an individual physical ("Schrödinger's cat") state: a superposition. And if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and if the unitary dynamics of QM doesn't break down in the CNS, then a succession of such unitary states constitutes our waking/dreaming minds.
Idle philosophising? Perhaps surprisingly, no. There's a testable hypothesis here. Experimental physics can't detect such quantum superpositions directly. But we can look for their telltale signature in the guise of non-classical interference effects (cf. the "two slit" experiment which demonstrates that probability amplitudes can interfere). For our conjecture to be empirically vindicated, two conditions must be satisfied. First, obviously, next-generation interferometry must detect the sub-picosecond signature of quantum coherent neuronal superpositions in the mind-brain in the guise of quantum interference effects, AND second, critically, these indirectly detected quantum coherent neuronal superpositions must robustly implicate all and only the synchronously firing feature-mediating neurons that orthodox neuroscience reveals are activated when individual phenomenally bound objects are perceived by the experimental subject.
Implausible? Yes, I hope so. For if any wild and weird conjecture about the natural world makes empirical predictions, then one wants these predictions to be robust, replicable and novel, not that the sun will rise tomorrow (or, at the risk of being unkind to some of my psi-believing colleagues on another FB group), prone to disappear in the presence of sceptical scientific observers.
Hawking? He's an outspoken materialist, perhaps because he conceives the only alternative to a materialist ontology is religious obscurantism. When Hawking speaks of our ignorance of what "breathes fire into" the equations, what's new isn't the concept but his evocative metaphor. Such poetical language is a lot friendlier than speaking of Kant's noumenal essences.
Well, for a background on why the phenomenal binding problem is so challenging - even if we take a pan-experientialist Strawsonian physicalism seriously - perhaps see:
Then perhaps Max Tegmark's paper on why macroscopic quantum coherence in the CNS isn't a credible candidate for solving the binding problem or anything else about the mind.
I rely on Max Tegmark's mathematical spadework. The difference is that what Max Tegmark treats as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind I treat as a falsifiable prediction: http://www.physicalism.com
And what if all we discover at Tegmarkian time-scales in the CNS is "noise", not the quantum-coherent signature of bound phenomenal objects as I predict? Well, I'll be let with (vegan) egg on my face. Recall that David Chalmers uses the ostensible absence of any such structural match between the phenomenology of bound phenomenal objects and the microstructure of the CNS to justify naturalistic dualism.
Yes, the alternatives are ugly.
Peter, I worry you may be doing David Chalmers an injustice! Chalmers knows his stuff scientifically speaking (unless you've noticed some particularly egregious error I've missed). What drives Chalmers away from materialism and even Strawsonian physicalism isn't lack of knowledge of physics or neuroscience but rather his understanding. In Kuhnian terms, the existence of consciousness and (less obviously) phenomenal binding are "anomalies" - I'd be inclined to use a stronger term - within the materialist paradigm. A majority of scientists hope that the anomalies can be resolved within the existing framework of knowledge. A minority of researchers disagree. Are we any closer to understanding consciousness within a materialist framework than fifty years ago? Or is materialism a "degenerating research program", to use Lakatos' term? IMO reductive physicalism can be saved - perhaps. Materialism? No. I could of course be mistaken on all counts.
* * *
Dave, apologies, I guess that I (and a small number of other philosophers) must seem unduly hung up on the binding problem. Does it really matter whether reductive physicalism is true? To be sure, it's partly just intellectual curiosity. Does everything that happens in the world supervene on the underlying physics? But getting the answer right has profound ethical implications. Understanding - ideally via testable scientific hypotheses - which of the world's systems are subjects of experience and which are insentient zombies determines whether or not they deserve moral consideration. Many people think they know the answer. Some even claim to find the answer obvious. Unfortunately, their answers don't agree.
* * *
James, how does consciousness scale? I think the answer depends on the mechanism of phenomenal binding. Compare a skull-bound American with a headache. Adding more skull-bound Americans with headaches doesn't make the pain any worse, just multiples its instances. Now compare a tiny neuronal micro-pain in the CNS. Adding similar neurons and configuring them into a synaptic network doesn't just add a bunch of micro-pains - it creates something qualitatively different, a raging headache. If we assume the standard story of discrete, membrane-bound classical neurons that "talk" to each other via chemical synapses, explaining how the headache arises is a challenge. After all, skull-bound Americans with headaches can communicate even faster via electromagnetic communication.
Let's say a blow to the head then knocks the headache suffer out. On my account, consciousness hasn't disappeared, rather the mind-brain has reverted back into "mind-dust". We shall see.
* * *
Investigation of the "neural correlates of consciousness" advances. Without the neurological signature of pain - and without the neurological signature of experience below "hedonic zero" - suffering and unpleasant experience of any kind are physically impossible. Such progress offers grounds for optimism about the long-term future. This is not the same as explaining why phenomenal pain or any other kind of subjective experience exists at all. Hence the number of scientists and philosophers willing to engage in outside-the-box thinking. Most (and perhaps all) will be mistaken. But a traditional materialist conceptual framework can't explain why we aren't zombies, or - as Matt and Daniel Dennett might say - why we seem to ourselves not to be zombies.
* * *
"I'm in agony. No, I don't want a doctor - I need a philosopher!" Radical eliminativism about consciousness has been called the craziest idea in the entire history of philosophy - which is saying something. That's not to say radical eliminativism is false in virtue of sounding crazy - I may have one-or-two-odd-sounding ideas as well - but I still don't think it can fly. Dylan, yes, Matt and I should do a Vulcan mind-meld: psychosis all-round I suspect.
The idea that consciousness is ubiquitous (panpsychism) or that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical (Strawsonian physicalism) is far removed from the view that consciousness doesn't exist at all: radical eliminativism. Neither panpsychism nor Strawsonian physicalism commit us to the view that, say, plants or digital computers or digital game characters are unitary subjects of experience. Whether or not any system is a unitary subject of experience depends on the answer we give to the phenomenal binding problem.
Matt, my phenomenal pain, pleasure, redness, sounds, tastes and so forth aren't entities whose existence I infer - whether rationally or otherwise. They are the phenomena I'm trying to explain. By all means tell me I'm systematically misconceiving their nature: fine. But not that the experiences themselves don't exist. True, anything more intellectually ambitious than solipsism-of-the-here-now rests on a chain of inferences. But I can't out-trump Descartes and deny the existence of my own thoughts.
Do I merely "believe" that I'm in pain? Our mental lives consist of far more than belief-episodes - though even one's belief-episodes have a subtle phenomenal aspect. Our mental lives comprise everything from sunsets to symphonies. Yes, whether dreaming or awake, I can form linguistic meta-representations of the phenomenal sunset or symphony I experience. But these meta-representations aren't the same as the vivid phenomenology of the experiences themselves. For example, one can experience millions of colours; but lack the linguistic resources to name or define them.
Zombies? IMO there is a risk of a fallacy of equivocation here. A (notional) p-zombie doesn't have a throbbing headache. The zombie has a state of its CNS that is supposed to be physically type-identical to that a sentient headache victim but devoid of phenomenal properties. Call this a p-headache, if you will. On a materialist ontology, why we're conscious at all is unexplained. So the existence of p-zombies and p-headaches might seem a credible possibility: it's one's own consciousness that's the mystery. P-zombies are not a possibility - and here I'm the one veering off into speculation - if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical and phenomenal binding is the hallmark of sentient beings. Whether quasi-classicality is the mark of digital zombies and macroscopic quantum coherence is the touchstone of sentience will be decided experimentally only when our tools are sensitive enough to probe its signature in the CNS - or if the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the brain, as Penrose and Hameroff suppose.
* * *
Andres, antagonists and inverse agonists can be used to bind to opioid and monoamine receptors to block and even reverse their effects. This suggests a lot of the action is intracellular. (Very) speculatively, the fabulous diversity of our qualia might be (partly) explained by the fabulous diversity of the primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary structures of amino acid residues making up polypepetide chains internal to our neurons. However, as you know, I think just as big a problem as explaining the values of primitive micro-experiences is explaining phenomenal binding - which would seem classical forbidden. IMO only a revolution in neuroscience can save reductive physicalism.
Why do [the ganglia of] worms enjoy morphine?
I guess because their ganglia support the same molecular signature of bliss as do our twin, cubic centimetre-sized "hedonic hotspots" in the ventral pallidum and rostral shell of the nucleus accumbens.
Some might say it's the only global shortage that really matters.
* * *
Most work in computational neuroscience and AI - and indeed on the "intelligence explosion" - is written as though Kant never existed. Ask an AI researcher "What do you think are the computational advantages of the transcendental unity of apperception?" and you might get a funny look. Start talking about its possible nonclassical mechanisms and you'll probably elicit rolling eyes. But I'm still curious just how fast and sophisticated our digital zombies will become before researchers acknowledge that they aren't going to "wake up" and acquire selves that reflexively ponder on their own phenomenal existence.
Anyhow, back to your question Mike. Electrode and opioid drug studies suggest that these regions do support the molecular signature of pure bliss without intentionality. The "painting" of hedonic tone on our otherwise hedonically neutral neocorical representations can be prevented by simultaneous co-administration of opioid and dopamine antagonists. This must be the worry about various "vaccines" against so-called drugs of abuse. By blunting or abolishing the capacity to experience drug-induced pleasure - or in the case of dopamine antagonists, the anticipation of pleasure - such vaccines [or state-sanctioned drug regimens] can certainly reduce drug abuse; but they may kill enjoyment of the rest of life too.
* * *
"[Chalmers argues that] consciousness does not affect our behavior in any way"
Robbie, this is true. However, Chalmers explores sympathetically a monistic conjecture that has the opposite implication, namely that, strictly speaking, only consciousness ever affects our behaviour, and indeed, all and only consciousness has causal efficacy. Chalmers ultimately rejects the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical for two reasons. (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) First, the Argument From Microphysical Simplicity (unpersuasive IMO if we assume a field-theoretic rather than particle-based ontology); and second, the Argument From Structural Mismatch. I think Chalmers is right to recognise that the phenomenal combination problem/binding problem is a huge challenge for reductive physicalism of any kind, whether or not we run with the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Some extremely smart people don't take the binding problem/combination problem seriously, either because they don't see it as a problem at all [Max Tegmark dismisses the binding problem in two paragraphs (4.43) in his otherwise illuminating: https://www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~cristian/UMCreadings/brain.pdf ] or regard it as a mere puzzle or anomaly, e.g. Nick Bostrom.
Eric, I think the worry is causal over-determination. If the physical - as understood in the normal way as "stuff" devoid of phenomenal properties - is causally sufficient to explain our behaviour, including writing inscriptions nominally "about" consciousness, then consciousness would seem causally redundant.
* * *
An indifferent universe? Parts of the universe don't care. Other parts of the universe do care, namely those we instantiate. The challenge if so show how this is possible without sacrificing reductive physicalism.
* * *
Dylan, we might imagine with Kant that the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world - the "fire" in the equations - is unknowable. All we'll ever know are phenomena. The noumenal essence of the world beyond our minds would lie forever beyond us. Schopenhauer - and more recently Michael Lockwood and Galen Strawson - turn Kant on his head. There is one part of the world that one knows as it is in itself and not at one remove, so to speak, and that's the matter and energy of one's own mind-brain. As our phenomenal consciousness discloses, its properties are radically different from what naive materialist metaphysics leads us to expect. Materialists speak of the brain "causing" consciousness. Materialists also claim that consciousness is identical with states of the brain. But these claims are not mutually consistent: identity is not a causal relationship.
So where is the phenomenal chair - and the phenomenal mountain - in front of one's body-image? Whether one is dreaming or awake, the phenomenal chair is internal to the mind brain and the simulation it runs of the mind-independent world.
What explains how the features of one's simulation are "bound" - why we're not aggregates of classical neuronal "mind dust"? Perhaps superpositions of the relevant neuronal feature detectors that simultaneously fire when you are seeking a chair, say, rather than seeing a hippopotamus.
Experimentalists can't probe these neuronal superpositions directly. What experimentalists can do is seek indirect confirmation that we are dealing with a true superposition rather than a classical ensemble by performing an interference experiment. Let's assume next-generation interferometry. We've moved from being able to detect quantum coherent superpositions of biomolecules to superpositions of neural networks. On the conjecture I explore, some neuronal states of the CNS are more prone to decoherence than others. It's these preferred experiential-physical states that experimentalists will detect in the CNS when interferometry catches up with theory. So when you report, "I can see a chair", and (uncontroversially) synchronous activation of your relevant neuronal feature detectors occurs, the conjecture will be falsified if the neuronal interference effects detected are typically irrelevant "noise", say a sub-attosecond superposition of the neurons synchronously activated when you see a hippopotamus (etc).
* * *
Everett? Greg, although we can speak, lazily, of quantum coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS as being "destroyed" at sub-femtosecond time-scales, on the Everett picture, thermally-induced decoherence does not destroy the superposition, but rather extends it to include the environment, i.e. system-environment entanglement delocalises local phase relations between locally separated wavefunction components. (cf. Maximilian Schlosshauer: http://www.amazon.com/Decoherence-Classical-Transition-Frontiers-Collection/dp/3540357734) In theory, a God-like superintelligence with total control over the mind-independent environment could engineer recoherence, i.e. a true reversal of phase delocalisation of the superposition. So let's say "destroyed for all practical purposes".
* * *
Taking quantum theory seriously:
("You’re powered by quantum mechanics. No, really")
Does the phenomenal binding that creates our classical world-simulations itself have a classical explanation? Or have organic minds been quantum computers for over half a billion years?
* * *
Does Strawsonian physicalism plus macroscopic quantum coherence in the CNS solve the Hard Problem and the Binding Problem?
Dylan, yes on both counts. If empirically confirmed, it would be a beautiful result; the experimental confirmation of what naively sounds like pure metaphysical speculation. And if falsified? Well, Chalmersian naturalistic dualism offends my intellectual sensibilities; but what would be the alternative? I don't know. While we wait for experiment to catch up with theory, however, I wonder how fast and sophisticated classical digital computers must become without metamorphosing into subjects of experience before proponents of "mind uploading", a Technological Singularity, and full-spectrum nonbiological superintelligence in silico re-examine their underlying assumptions.
* * *
Dylan, I incline to an extreme nominalism.
("Science Without Numbers" by Hartry Field)
Abstract objects, including abstract mathematical objects, don't really exist. But unless we treat them as really existing for some purposes, then we will miss concrete features of the physical world.
An inexact comparison would be linguistic meaning. No, it's not really the case that one bit of the world, e.g. this sentence, is "really" about another bit of the world. Such a magical theory of meaning isn't naturalistic. But unless we treat semantic meaning as though it were real, we will have no conceptual handle on all sorts of features of the natural world. Of course, in the case of mathematics, the isomorphism between solutions to the equations of physics and the physical world is much tighter than with natural language. Recall my conjecture - and I'd stress this runs way beyond the evidence or even well-explored speculation - is that the solutions to the equations of physics yield the diverse values of experience. Perhaps experiences take the values they do because otherwise they wouldn't mathematically cancel out to zero: they are what a zero ontology entails.
Jera, yes, quantum superpositions of biomolecules decohere more slowly than neuronal superpositions ("local" binding?) which decohere more rapidly than (hypothetical) pan-cerebral superpositions ("global" phenomenal binding?). But whether the time-scales involved are of the order of femtoseconds, attoseconds or even zeptoseconds, the existence of such superpositions is inescapable if the unitary dynamics of QM doesn't break down. And whereas these time-scales are naively too short to be of any relevance to consciousness and phenomenal binding, this commonsensical response is not open to anyone who believes that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. So David Chalmers' "Argument From Structural Mismatch" for dualism isn't watertight. We won't know the answer until experiment catches up with theory.
How a massively parallel system like the mature human mind-brain creates a slow but passable imitation of a classical serial computer is unknown. Such a virtual machine seems to be a late evolutionary innovation. But no known classical mechanism can fake phenomenal binding, which is demonstrably ancient.
[on legal highs and lows]
Today, the battle against legal highs is waged more energetically than the battle against legal lows: However, eventually involuntary experience below hedonic zero can, I trust, be outlawed.
("Psychonauts explore unknown world of legal highs – with themselves as lab rats")
Mark, just as thunder and lightening were the anger of the gods, I suspect posthumans will regard ascriptions of "agony" or "bliss" to digital zombies as rather quaint.
* * *
[Andres Gomez Emilsson writes, "OK, here is a project for future-me: Take the primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary structure of intra-cellular components on neurons as a feature set, and a vectorized description of the qualia-types that each neuron is associated with. With any luck, a regression (or a more sophisticated machine learning approach) will highlight the type of features that matter the most in order to predict the qualia that is associated with action potentials of individual neurons"]
Andres, some of these summer projects can take longer than expected. But yes, let's assume The Emilsoonic Table. With our genetically-engineered palette of utopian microqualia, we have...a p-zombie. Each of its units is a precious jewel. But we no more have a sentient subject of experience than the USA is a pan-continental subject of experience. Whether there will ever be a post-classical era of Qualia Science remains to be seen. Probing the mind-brain at Hameroff's temporal resolutions takes a lot less finesse than the Tegmarkian time-scales I anticipate.
Indeed Mark. what we would now call science was a comparatively minor part of Newton's work: One wonders if any of our contemporaries may have buried treasure of equivalent intellectual worth hidden in - to be indelicate about it - complete dross. The field of psychedelic research springs to mind; but there may be others.
* * *
If an unscheduled drug with low tolerance and negligible side-effects made you feel "warm, safe, fed, and loved", would you take it?
("Building the Perfect Painkiller; Inside the quest to conquer addictive drugs.")
("Recreational drug use; New highs. As traditional drugs lose their lure, novel ones are filling the gap in the market")
Kicking the brain's negative feedback mechanism into action by taking euphoriants is not going to raise hedonic set-points. Possibly, tomorrow's designer drugs may do so. In the long run, however, presumably we want genetic default settings that are kinder than today's norm.
Which 5-HTTLPR polymorphism should be choose?
("National Happiness and Genetic Distance:, A Cautious Exploration")
Kevin, I share many of your reservations. I'd just add that the hedonic significance of polymorphisms of the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene isn't something just pulled out of a mass of raw sociological data. 5-HTTLPR's role has been explored in "animal models" in numerous experiments where the ethical constraints of using human subjects in "experimental manipulations" supposedly don't apply.
* * *
I guess there's an irony to a negative utilitarian predicting the lower bounds of posthuman well-being may be orders of magnitude richer than human peak experiences. But why settle for the mediocre if we can enjoy the sublime?
* * *
Stuart, fortunately we don't need to resort to speculation here. There are certainly people whose lives as whole strike a rough "balance" of positive and negative hedonic tone - ranging from the extremes of bipolar disorder to the gentler mood fluctuations of more equable folk. But just as, tragically, there are chronic severe depressives whose lifelong "balance" lies way below hedonic zero, conversely there are extreme hyperthymics whose lives consist essentially of gradients of well-being. We know from e.g. twin studies that these traits have a high degree of genetic loading. So the question arises. Either by preimplantation genetic screening or genetic tweaking, what kind of hedonic range and hedonic set-point do we want our future children to enjoy? Or should we settle for genetic roulette and the status quo?
Not a genetic crapshoot? Stuart, how else would you describe something like the sickle-cell allele in malarial regions? Bad luck if you lack it, or are homozygous. Good luck if you're a heterozygote. It's a cruel game of genetic roulette. The same holds true of everything from pain thresholds to hedonic set-points. Yes, we can keep on throwing the genetic dice and hope God or Mother Nature will be kind. Frequently this isn't the case.
Stuart, futurists explore all sorts of scenarios. Occasionally, they get things right, more often wrong - either for technical or sociological reasons, or both. Your conjecture that pain and suffering will endure for billions of years after humans are gone could be correct. But the conjecture rests on all sorts of assumptions. The biotech revolution makes it hard to claim that than intelligent agents will never be intellectually capable of choosing the upper and lower bounds of their hedonic range - and the hedonic range of any of the cognitively humble beings over which they have stewardship, benign or otherwise. So your conjecture really turns on sociological analysis.
Are you with me so far?
Or do you believe that the "raw feels" of suffering are intrinsic to the very nature of carbon-based life itself?
* * *
MDMA (Ecstasy): https://www.mdma.net
For - crudely speaking - a "pro" and "anti" position, perhaps see:
Most published literature makes MDMA sound little better than rat-poison [not that rats should be poisoned] Used cautiously and rarely, MDMA seems to retain its full "magic" with relatively few side-effects. Unfortunately, it's not human nature to have a sublime experience and think: "well, I wouldn't want to do that again". Hence the need for research into safer long-acting agents. The MDMA "magic" seems to be triggered by the copious release of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
* * *
Love: a treatable disorder?
Imagine if being "in" love were a drug-induced psychosis. The penalties for trafficking in the terrible agent in question might be worse than for cocaine or heroin dealing...
("This Is Your Brain on a Break Up")
Should we seek better body-armour or sharper arrows?
("Biology of love at first sight: Study explains the mechanism of "Cupid's arrow"")
* * *
("Germany Launches Drones To Prevent Farm Accidents That Kill 100,000 Fawns A Year")
("Kenya to deploy drones in all national parks in bid to tackle poaching")
Thanks Robert, Brian. Great news. "Should we save Bambi?" is an easier sell than rescuing his less photogenic cousins. But once the basic principle - and technological basis - of welfare biology is established for even a single nonhuman species, it's natural to ask at what species-level our benevolence should stop.
* * *
"Pain in animals" versus "Pain in nonhuman animals":
Epipelagic, a global search-and-replace would be technically trivial to implement. But yes, it's the sort of change that could be done only by Wikipedia consensus.
As you've probably guessed, I wouldn't worry about such a pedantic-sounding point in this particular entry if there weren't far-reaching implications.
Whether the question is framed as "Pain in animals" or "Pain in nonhuman animals" will shape many readers' responses. This is a case where scientific accuracy really matters.
* * *
Intensity of consciousness? Do adult humans undergo suffering of the same level, intensity or offensiveness as sperm whale suffering? Our brains are smaller and the kinds of task we're good at, for example the use of generative syntax or solving equations, don't appear to involve especially intense forms of consciousness. Either way, whether we're considering intensely conscious whales or less conscious chickens or premature human babies, we need to make the moral tradition from systematically exploiting sentient beings to systematically helping them.
* * *
Will posthumans sleep?
("Life Without Sleep")
Twenty-one days without sleep? David, this is extraordinary. I'd love to see you tested under carefully controlled conditions in a sleep laboratory. With the exception of a handful of cases of fatal familial hypersomnia, three weeks completely without sleep is unheard of - to my knowledge at any rate.
[on non-addictive opioid painkillers - and antidepressants?]
UMB 425: might this novel dual-action compound be a painkiller and antidepressant with minimal tolerance?
Alas the history of psychopharmacology is littered with false dawns.
ACS Chem Neurosci. 2013 Sep 18;4(9):1256-66. doi: 10.1021/cn4000428. Epub 2013 Jun 11.
("Synthesis, modeling, and pharmacological evaluation of UMB 425, a mixed μ agonist/δ antagonist opioid analgesic with reduced tolerance liabilities."
Healy JR1, Bezawada P, Shim J, Jones JW, Kane MA, MacKerell AD Jr, Coop A, Matsumoto RR.)
Peter, I suspect that combining a conventional strong opioid with 1) methylnaltrexone, a peripherally active opioid receptor antagonist; and 2) a selective centrally active kappa antagonist like JDTic (kappa is the "nasty" opioid receptor) would work wonders; but you probably wouldn't want to be used a guinea pig.
The Kappa Connection:
("A new target for alcoholism treatment: Kappa opioid receptors")
Conversely, the kappa connection:
("Is the key to consciousness in the claustrum?")
Sad to say, more scientific research is published by Erowid than CERN or big-name universities:
It should be added that for some subjects kappa agonists can open the gates of Hell. So caution is in order.
A very nice overview:
("Antagonists of the kappa opioid receptor").
("Researcher Finds an Off Switch for Pain")
Converting pain neurons into bliss factories is preferable:
("Pain in a dish: Researchers turn skin cells into pain sensing neurons")
[on antidepressants and love]
("Antidepressants Affect Feelings of Love for Partner")
The old tricyclics mentioned have anticholinergic effects - which instead of simply being adverse side-effects may contribute to their antidepressant action. Even mild central anticholinergic effects can subtly impair cognitive function. Two tricyclics that don't have anticholinergic effects and don't impair romantic love/sexual function are amineptine and tianeptine. Neither are licensed in the USA.
[on the verdict of history]
If history awards you a footnote, will you be remembered for the right reasons?
("How much did it cost David Pearce to buy up all the domains for the drugs he featured in the Good Drug Guide [https://www.biopsychiatry.com/]? e.g. tianeptine.com or http://modafinil.com/ [man, that domain must be worth a lot given the volume of searches on modafinil. or reboxetine.com None of these sites even have ads on them, which makes it especially surprising (how does he benefit?)")
* * *
[on the power of negative thinking]
("The upside of pessimism")
"If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.”
(Philip K. Dick)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) works for some people. But inevitably, CBT studies can't be double blind. Critics claim its advocates often confuse symptom with cause. For some depressive people, defensive pessimism ("the power of negative thinking") is a better coping strategy. IMO, we urgently need better biological therapies. But I'm sceptical of dramatic progress so long as the neurotransmitter system directly implicated in hedonic tone is taboo.
Imagine if we had to treat juvenile diabetes without using insulin. I fear this may be the predicament humanity faces with some kinds of depression. If legal and political constraints mean that the neurotransmitter system most directly implicated in hedonic tone - in particular the mu opioid receptors in our twin hedonic hotspots - can't be targeted directly, then we're fighting depression with at (at least) one hand tried behind our back. Morphine, for example, is often called a "painkiller", but it's really an antidepressant - unfortunately, an antidepressant with serious side-effects.
* * *
“Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures.” (Voltaire)
Alas for complications...
("Dial P for Pleasure")
Our approach to creating well-being owes more to Rube Goldberg than to science - with the important difference that Rube Goldberg machines at least get the job done.
Lifelong orgasmic bliss; what a nightmare:
("Why A "Sex Chip" Could Be Considerably More Trouble Than It's Worth")
Presumably, there will always be selection pressure against wireheading or its pharmacological equivalent. This is why we should probably be aiming for information-sensitive gradients of superhuman bliss instead. But if an evil vivisectionist were to plug electrodes into my reward centres and stimulate them indefinitely, I wouldn't hold it against him.
* * *
Are minds best hacked by hedonists or stoics?
("Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever" – Lary Wallace)
* * *
Will organic robots bury their gravediggers?
("Nick Bostrom Explores Superintelligence in His New Book")
Programmable memories for organic robots?
("US Military Is Moving Forward With Plans To Create A Brain Implant That Restores Memory")
* * *
Andres, taking psychedelics can hint - no more - at a fraction of these state-spaces of consciousness. Although the properties of these state spaces are exhaustively described by the mathematical formalism of physics, the only way to understand such state-spaces will be to instantiate them yourself. Perhaps the successors to today's CRISPR-genome editing tools will allow access to state-spaces of consciousness impossible even with cocktails of today's psychedelics. Scientifically exploring consciousness may take millions of years - perhaps far longer. And the exploration won't be done by invincibly ignorant classical computers. States and state-spaces? Tetrachromats, for example, experience vastly more phenomenal colours than the rest of us; but no more states-spaces - though the distinction is not absolute.
* * *
Incident electromagnetic radiation is neither necessary nor sufficient for the experience of phenomenal redness. "Red" is a primitive term incommunicable to someone has never experienced phenomenal colour. Likewise, if someone (a posthuman?) has never undergone an experience below hedonic zero, I'm not sure such experience could be explained in different words: experience on the other side of the watershed might be literally inconceivable to them.
Of course, claims that some phenomenon or other is "conceptually primitive" can be abused.
But IMO the badness of agony (etc) is self-intimating. If we had Borg-like access to each other's minds, that realisation of intrinsic disvalue would be shared; and the fact it isn't shared reflects our epistemological limitations rather than the truth of anti-realism about (dis)value.
* * *
HI. Thanks Simone. State-of-the-art web design circa 1997. How much of the content has dated too? Well, I was writing before the human genome had been decoded - let alone the CRISPR genome-editing revolution and "gene drive" technologies. Alleles implicated in high and low hedonic set-points and high and low pain-sensitivity hadn't been identified.
In vitro meat was still science fiction. But IMO the moral case for using biotechnology to phase out the biology of (involuntary) suffering throughout the living world remains as compelling as ever.
[on turning bad memories into good]
Even the bad times were good? Can we rethink the past?
("Scientists Turn Bad Memories Into Good Inside the Brains of Mice | Science | WIRED")
* * *
What is it like to be a fly?
("The Thirsty Mind")
* * *
Or will they teach us?
("Teaching Robots Right from Wrong")
A classical utilitarian utility function has deeply counter-intuitive implications.
Could you pass the Turing Test?
("Computer becomes first to pass Turing Test in artificial intelligence milestone, but academics warn of dangerous future") See too:
("Do we really need to learn to code?")
[on the FHI end-of-the-world sweepstakes]
"Everybody wants to save the world but nobody wants to help mom with the dishes."
Here is a photo of my recent visit to Oxford FHI.
Negative, classical and preference utilitarians have a somewhat different conception of existential risk. The FHI end-of-the-world sweepstakes yielded one or two surprises. And it's not quite as obvious as it might appear who are the optimists and pessimists...
The End of The World?
["What credence do you give to the following scenarios?
1) 50% of humans will die in a [single catastrophic] catastrophic disaster in the next 100 years?
2) We are living in a computer simulations created by an advanced civilisation?
3) Humanity goes extinct in the next 100 years?
4) AGI is developed in by 2050?
"Probability that every single person you know will be dead in the next 100 years...99%". Rob, more than one friend (Andres!?) has expressed a worry that as a negative utilitarian, I might bump them off in their sleep [I assured them I favour the sanctity of life.]. But I guess you weren't alluding to my homicidal inclinations, but rather the likelihood of radical life-extension this century. I'm sceptical anyone over the age of 50 will make it; I don't know about the twentysomethings...
FHI initiatives to end suffering? Sangar, yes - though not in the form of a full-frontal assault. If one believes in the IJ Good / MIRI conception of an imminent nonbiological Intelligence Explosion, then everything else we might work on pales in comparison. The hypothetical singleton AGI, if human- (or better, sentience-) friendly, could easily fix everything from suffering to ageing to unlimited material abundance. None of this infernal waiting for centuries or longer as I anticipate. So the critical issue is just how compelling are the grounds for an Intelligence Explosion. Nick has done everyone a favour by laying out the arguments in a careful, scholarly and lucid way.
* * *
If humans didn't exist, would a benign superintelligence invent us?
("What our descendants will deplore about us")
* * *
Only humans can create sentience-friendly superintelligence. But is sentience-friendly superintelligence consistent with conserving humans?
("The Truth About Evil")
* * *
("Author: ‘Top Species Will No Longer Be Humans, But Machines’ By 2045")
Jordan, you've neatly encapsulated why the existence of suffering is itself a profound source of existential risk - to use the loaded term now standard. An intrinsically blissful civilisation would find life so self-evidently wonderful, I doubt they could press the button. On a more life-affirming note, to the best of our knowledge a vacuum phase transition (or perhaps a decompactification event http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0404220v2.pdf) could propagate only at the velocity of light. Von Neumann probes (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_spacecraft) whether designed to propagate utilitronium or more complex hedonic architectures, can in principle propagate in a "shockwave" at very close to that velocity. So such a superintelligence would needn't to initiate Armageddon. What keeps me awake - sometimes literally - is the existence of certain life-supporting Everett branches inaccessible to superintelligent agency. Mercifully, I'm statistically likely to be as deluded as most people - albeit in my own idiosyncratic way.
* * *
There is no evidence that humans are going to be superseded by zombies. Nor is there any evidence that nonbiological robots are going to cease being zombies and become sentient. Yes, a notional human-unfriendly Intelligence Explosion culminating in an AGI that converts the world into paperclips would solve the problem of suffering. In practice, phasing out suffering will be down to us - aided and enhanced by our machines.
Dylan, some kind of "narrow" superintelligence seems feasible. The fact that Deep Blue lacks a unitary self and isn't conscious makes no difference to the outcome of a game of chess. But a psychopharmacologist, say, is likely to be more pessimistic about the prospects of full-spectrum superintelligence than a chess player. You or I can set out to explore the nature and varieties of consciousness. We may investigate its neural correlates. A digital zombie would say "This question is not well posed."
* * *
Martin, yes. Likewise my time estimate of when we will have human-level artificial intelligence shifts if I gaze out of the window on Friday night after the pubs shut. That said, building hyper-social AI with a superhuman capacity for tact, diplomacy, and perspective-taking is a much harder challenge than building super-genius AI as traditionally understood.
* * *
Unwise. Let's hope Al-Qaeda don't have their own version of Abbot Amalric.
("Kill them all, God will know His own")
("Exclusive: Controversial US scientist creates deadly new flu strain for pandemic research")
A zombie putsch? Probably not...
("Fear artificial stupidity, not artificial intelligence")
Note that contra Mark Bishop, the conjecture that panpsychism is true no more entails the sentience of digital computers than the conjecture that Americans are conscious entails the sentience of the United States.
* * *
Has Archbishop Ussher met his match?
("Human-Level AI Is Coming By 2029")
* * *
It's still deeply unclear what a sufficiently advanced civilisation can and can't do, including influencing what we naively call "the past".
Lev Vaidman, for instance, combines Everett with the two-state vector formalism. Insofar as we believe ethics is computable, we'll need posthuman superintelligence to do it:
* * *
("What Will life be like inside a computer?")
Nick, it's one of the more exotic forms of existential risk. We all destructively upload and then chuckle about the deadbeat carbon chauvinist losers who thought we'd be creating digital zombies. But the sceptics are right and sentience is over.
[on the moral status of video game characters]
Do video game characters matter?
("This guy thinks killing video game characters is immoral")
Sad to say, videogames turn me into a sociopathic serial killer. Throughout the action, I'm not continuously thinking this-is-only-a-game. Natural selection "designed" men to be hunters and warriors. Do first-person-shooters unlock our true nature? As a descendant of Viking berserkers, I sometimes fear so. Could say, Modern Combat 5 be redesigned so we compete to give ex-hostiles the most hugs? I wonder how popular loved-up mods would be in the gaming community.
* * *
Thanks Khannea. I confess my belief in high-tech Jainism doesn't extend to Modern Warfare 4. Of course, it's good to consider the possibility that the metaphysical assumptions underlying one's core ethic could be catastrophically mistaken. One thinks of e.g. the Cartesians vivisecting unanaesthetised dogs on the assumption that their "distress vocalisations" were simply the mechanical noises of insentient automata. After meeting and chatting with Brian in Basel, I now have a much better idea why Brian believes intelligent agents will never phase out suffering altogether - even our smart prostheses will have feelings of a sort.
Unless we are going to give up on reductive physicalism and the unity of science, I don't think digital zombies are subjects of experience - even if we assume pan-experientialism / Strawsonian physicalism. (cf. http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness) Without phenomenal binding, there is no subject of experience, and no capacity for suffering; and binding is classically forbidden. However, my own explanation of phenomenal binding lies well outside the neuroscientific mainstream; I won't rehash it here.
Whatever the answer to the Binding Problem, the intensity of experience doesn't appear to be a function of complexity. All sorts of immensely complicated systems, e.g. the weather or the stock market, are not subjects of experience. Nor for that matter (to the best of our knowledge at any rate) is the enteric nervous system - the "brain in the gut" - with its 100 million-odd neurons, 30 different neurotransmitters, and its capacity for autonomous operation. [Brian, do you believe the enteric nervous system deserves moral consideration?] Conversely, the extremely simple, primitive and evolutionary ancient wetware of the limbic system mediates some our most intense experiences: panic, agony and orgasmic bliss. Unlike organic sentients, digital zombies do not spontaneously seek pain-relief nor request anaesthesia. You can digitally waterboard digital zombies without them flickering a virtual eyelid. By contrast, no amount of "programming", or training up of our neural networks, can induce such stoicism in an organic mind-brain. In my view, it would be a shame if futurists began worrying more about the purely metaphorical interests of digital zombies when the terrible plight of organic sentients lies - often quite literally - under our noses.
...Sorry if I've in any way mischaracterised your position, Brian; it's so alien to me, I thought I'd better check. Let's assume, controversially I know, that the world has absolutely minimal "pixels" of micro-experience; possibly they constitute the intrinsic nature of the physical whose behaviour the equations of physics exhaustively describe. We still need to distinguish which gross objects / macroscopic systems are mere structured aggregates from systems that are unitary subjects of experience. Unlike mere structured aggregates, a subject of experience can potentially suffer; it literally has interests. Thus Eric Schwitzgebel believes that the USA is, literally, a subject of experience; some advocates of the Gaia hypothesis (though not James Lovelock himself) believe that the Earth is, literally, a subject of experience; you believe that the digital hostiles we fight in Modern Combat (etc) are subjects of experience. (?)
* * *
Ah, by "pixel" I just mean the smallest possible discrete unit of experience: I didn't want here to beg the question of what that minimal unit might be. Many neuroscientists believe that only a neural network of at least thousands of neurons can be minimally consciousness; others believe that an individual neuron can support rudimentary consciousness. Most radically, Strawsonian physicalists believe that the fundamental stuff of the world (fields / strings / branes or whatever) are the ultimate phenomenal building blocks. Whatever our answer - and here we do differ - IMO there really is a fact of the matter which systems are unitary subjects of experience and which are mere structured aggregates, i.e. the answer isn't just relative to our ascriptive practices.
Yes, it's useful shorthand to say "the USA feels that its interests are threatened by Russian action in Eastern Europe". But there isn't a single pan-continental subject of experience who feels anxiety - or at least there isn't a single subject of experience if we assume reductive physicalism.
By contrast, when one goes to hear a symphony orchestra, or watch 22 guys playing football (etc), the neural networks of the CNS undergo both local and global phenomenal binding, to use Revonsuo's terminology. Unlike normal people, someone with simultanagnosia can't see 22 players on a football pitch, even with smart prostheses, only one at a time. Someone with akinetopsia ("motion blindness") can't see a car moving towards him, just frozen frames. And so forth.
One reason I'm still not confident I've got your position correctly Brian is that I thought you were conjecturing that e.g. video game characters are, literally, suffering subjects of experience, albeit subjects with an intensity and complexity of experience less than our own, whereas your comments above suggest that treating video game characters as subjects of experience is purely conventional on our part, a "projection", so to speak.
...Yes, but in each case, surely there is a objective fact of the matter, whether we know it or not? The Cartesians wrongly believed that the unanaesthetised dogs they vivisected didn't suffer. At the other extreme, animists are mistaken to believe that trees and mountains are subjects of experience: it's an anthropomorphic projection. In the case of our digital game characters, either they suffer or they don't. If they don't suffer, then the fate that befalls them matters only derivatively, e.g. if the neglectful owners of a tamagotchi mourn it.
Robert, naively the world contains different "levels" - p-branes, fermions and bosons, physical chemistry, molecular biology, ecosystems, etc. But the whole thrust of reductionism and the ontological unity of science is the aspiration to derive everything from the underlying physics, i.e. molecular biology from quantum chemistry and quantum chemistry from relativistic quantum field theory or its more speculative extensions beyond the Standard Model. Sometimes the reduction is relatively "clean;" sometimes it's messy - more of a replacement than a reduction. Perhaps compare Mendel's conception of a gene with the multiple transcribed regions of DNA that code for a polypeptide or for an RNA chain. What resists reduction within a materialist framework is consciousness. We need to explain:
1) why consciousness exists at all.
2) how it's (sometimes) phenomenally bound in seemingly classically forbidden ways;
3) why consciousness has its innumerable different textures - ranging from different phenomenal colours, tastes and smells to pains and pleasures - or the experience of finding a joke funny.
In principle at any rate, I think a reduction is feasible with a combination of Strawsonian physicalism and macroscopic quantum coherence at Tegmarkian time-scales. But what if experiments detect nothing but incoherent "noise"? Well, then I think reductive physicalism will have failed. I won't know where to turn.
We need a rigorous account of computation that can handle the investigation of qualia. Yes, immense progress in AI has been achieved by setting aside questions of consciousness - its nature, its varieties, phenomenal binding and the properties of the phenomenal self. However, any general artificial intelligence, - and even more so any full-spectrum superintelligence - must be able to investigate such questions, as do human researchers. Unfortunately, such questions don't count as well-defined or even meaningful within the reigning paradigm of computer science. Can an insentient classical digital computer investigate the properties of sentience? If so, how could we set about programming a digital computer (or training up a connectionist system) to conduct such research?
Robert, what exactly is the difference between a brain-in-a-vat and a dreaming brain-in-a-skull? Aren't our dreaming minds defined precisely by their lack of sensory-motor relationships to an external body and a mind-independent world? Yes, when we're awake, we typically enjoy greater self-insight and critical self-awareness than when we're dreaming. During waking consciousness, our world-simulations tend causally to co-vary with the extra-cranial body in which they're housed and gross patterns in the local environment. But whether we're awake or dreaming, immersive VR is all we'll ever know - until we master mind-melding technology at any rate.
Perception? All analogies break down somewhere - including the analogy of a dreaming brain-in-a-skull with a brain-in-a-vat. But the phenomenon of dreaming illustrates how the intuitive contrast between subtle, elusive and ineffable consciousness and the solid and refractory material world is actually internal to conscious mind. Of course, if one is a direct realist about perception, then the mind-dependent mountain of one's dreams is replaced on waking by direct access, somehow, to a mind-independent physical mountain. The wide-awake world-simulationist, on the other hand, believes that the phenomenally apprehended mountain beyond his egocentric body-image now tracks real but only inferred mind-independent geographical features of the world outside his transcendental skull. Or, to quote T.S. Eliot, "one is always alone".
Brian, I'm afraid I'm firmly in the Explanatory Gap camp - and not because I love mysteries (I hate them). If an orthodox physicalist ontology is correct, I should be a zombie. Whereas you think that consciousness is "what an algorithm feels like from the inside", I think naturally evolved organic minds running classical world-simulations are "what a quantum computer feels like from the inside". A classically algorithmic conception of consciousness allows phenomenal minds to be generated at multiple levels of computational abstraction. By contrast, I think our minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical. Just as for lawyers, for examples, laws tend to be as real as chairs and tables, so do algorithms seems as real to computer scientists. Pragmatically, for sure, if we don't treat algorithms as real, then we'll miss all sorts of interesting patterns in the world. Algorithms are real in the same sense the "function" of the heart (to circulate blood throughout the body) is real. But in principle, one can exhaustively explain the behaviour of a PC without invoking algorithms at all, just basic materials science - just as one can exhaustively explain in causal terms the behaviour of the heart without invoking functional-teleological concepts at all, just basic physics.
Brian, can you think of a novel experimental test that could potentially falsify your conjecture?
Jonathan, I'm a hardcore reductive physicalist, though perhaps not in the sense your grandma would recognise.
If we conjecture [contra Kant, but following Schopenhauer, Russell, Lockwood, Strawson et al.) that the phenomenology of one's mind discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then presumably mathematical physics describes patterns of qualia. Solving the fundamental field equations of QM entails discovering the values of qualia. Critically here, I predict we'll discover that what physically distinguishes bound phenomenal minds from mere structured aggregates of phenomenal pixels is macroscopic quantum coherence at naively stupidly short time-scales; an ontological integrity that both dreamless organic brains and digital zombies lack - except in the form of computationally and phenomenally irrelevant "noise".
Peter, yes, on Brian's view (and on Tononi's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_information_theory), level of sentience is essentially a function of complexity. On my view, computationally complex systems are often zombies, whereas some exceedingly simple systems (e.g. SQUIDS:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SQUID) are actually a single unvarying macroscopic experience.
Brian, IMO there is a substantive dispute here. Are video game characters subjects of experience, however weak, thin or weird you conjecture their phenomenology to be? Yes, discovering that commonsense wisdom [and exotic quantum-mind theory, etc] is mistaken would lead to a revision of our semantic and moral practices - and many further disputes not amenable to scientific resolution. But we shouldn't lose sight of the boldness of your original claim from which everything else would spring.
Thus there really is a fact of the matter whether [the cephalic ganglion of] a bumble bee is conscious. You and I never wantonly harm bumble-bees not (just) because harming bees is bad karma, or because needlessly harming bees promotes vicious behaviour towards humans, or because it's convenient to take the intentional stance towards bumble bees and treat them as conscious, but rather because we believe - truly or falsely - that the cephalic ganglia of bumble-bees really are miniature subjects of experience: sentient not in the same way as you and me, or to the same degree, but still fellow subjects, i.e. not merely nominally conscious or non-conscious beings in virtue of human linguistic convention. By contrast, we substantively disagree on whether it's like anything at all to be video game characters. I think we're merely projecting our own emotions and states of mind onto digital zombies. You believe that our digital creations are real subject of experience e.g. it's like something to be a video-game character even when we set the game on "auto" mode to run while we sleep.
If you grant there really is a substantive dispute here, then we still need to determine whether it's scientifically soluble. An untestable claim may still be scientific if it's one of a number of novel predictions generated by a theory some of which can be empirically tested.
One example of a conjecture that is in principle directly empirically testable is the claim that other organic vertebrates are conscious, i.e. not zombies, except when in a dreamless sleep. In principle, you or I could engineer a reversible thalamic bridge with another human or a pig. (cf. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html: "Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind")
http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Through+sister+eyes+Conjoined+twins+Tatiana+Krista+were+extraordinary+from+beginning/7449226/story.html: "Through her sister’s eyes: Conjoined twins Tatiana and Krista were extraordinary from the beginning"
(Naturalistic) "telepathic" intelligence is currently not measured in "IQ tests" because it's so rare. A sub-test where virtually all participants score 0 is of limited use. But full-spectrum superintelligences may hugely surpass Tantiana and Krista. And in my view, they won't be digital zombies.
Granted, such an experimental test of sentience isn't feasible with today's video-game characters. But I was wondering if your conjecture has any novel testable predictions for other computationally complex systems?
Robert, you're articulating the most radical version of the extended mind thesis (cf. http://consc.net/papers/extended.html): what might be called the "extended consciousness" thesis. By contrast, IMO the difference between our dreaming and being awake isn't that when dreaming one is trapped in a world-simulation and when awake one perceives one's local surroundings. Rather when one is awake, the contents of one's world-simulation are selected by nerve impulses triggered by events in the mind-independent world.
* * *
Mike, interesting. For many (but not all) purposes, these prostheses could imitate function. But aren't states of pure bliss, agony or despair - and all the hedonic and dolorous gradations in-between - both 1) "raw feels" / qualia themselves; and 2) sometimes dissociated from the neocortical representations to which they are often bound? Thus inducing raw bliss, for example, with full mu opioid receptor activation of our twin "hedonic hotspots" would not be fitness-enhancing taken in isolation. Nor, taken in isolation would a neocortical representation of, say, a potential nubile mate. But the hedonic coloration of our world-simulations via opioidergic and monomaninergic projections from the limbic system is a hugely computationally powerful adaptation. Indeed, it's often adaptive for the organism to believe that the hedonic valence it feels is somehow intrinsic to the nubile mate / predator (etc) itself.
Mike, just to clarify, I actually agree with you about separating valence from behaviour as completely as possible. All I'd do is question whether separation is possible completely - or whether instead a primordial proto-functionality is built into the pleasure-pain axis, a sort of primitive binary code natural selection has co-opted to animate behaviour in a world without computer programmers or neural net trainers.
One often hears the question "What does consciousness do?" And "How does it do it?" A causal role for consciousness seems physically impossible. Yet without relaxing the requirement of reductive physicalism, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then strictly speaking, consciousness does literally everything! It's what "breathes fire into" the equations. But for most human purposes, its subjective textures are no more functionally relevant than whether a CPU executing program instructions is made of silicon or gallium arsenide.
If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then perhaps "physicalistic idealism" is a better term than "Russellian monism". But to say one is both a reductive physicist and a monistic idealist sounds like schizophrenic word-salad. I normally say I'm a "Strawsonian physicalist" - which sounds suitably austere, especially to non-philosophers who confuse Galen with his father.
IMO the real challenge of explaining why we're not zombies isn't consciousness but phenomenal binding, which seems classically forbidden.
However, Max Tegmark ("Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer") is generally reckoned to have debunked quantum mind with his calculations of thermally-induced decoherence times in the "warm, wet, noisy" CNS.
And contra Penrose and Hameroff, there is no evidence that the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the brain.
But instead of treating Tegmark's calculations as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind, IMO they are better treated as a novel and falsifiable prediction.
When we can probe he mind-brain at the sub-picosecond time-scales above which thermally-induced decoherence occurs in the CNS, then I predict we'll find, not computationally and phenomenally irrelevant "noise", but instead a perfect structural match between the formal and phenomenal properties of mind.
If so, David's "structural mismatch" (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) may just be an artefact of the coarse-grained temporal resolution of our traditional tools of investigation.
* * *
Yes, it's worth stressing that the conjecture that one's consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical doesn't involve scepticism about the mind-independent physical world - or about other phenomenal minds. Nor need we doubt that the formalism of physics - or rather tomorrow's physics beyond the energy range of the Standard Model - is complete and that physics is causally closed.
But physicalistic idealism fails - by itself - to explain why we're not zombies (see e.g. Philip Goff's "Why panpsychism doesn't help explain consciousness":
Phenomenal binding by apparently discrete, membrane-bound neurons separated by 3nm - 40nm sized electrical gap junctions and chemical synapses would seem classically forbidden.
A lot of people working in IT assume that consciousness is somehow a function of computational complexity.
(cf. Scott Aaronson's critique of Giulio Tononi: "Why I Am Not An Integrated Information Theorist (or, The Unconscious Expander")
But on such accounts, the phenomenal binding we undergo is still inconsistent with reductive physicalism, i.e. it's an inexplicable miracle. Computational complexity doesn't explain why we're not zombies.
[I won't here rehash my ideas on how phenomenal binding discloses that our minds are macroscopic quantum computers operating on Tegmarkian time-scales. But it's worth stressing just what a ridiculously, unimaginably protracted interval of time an entire picosecond amounts to - over thirty orders of magnitude longer than the natural chronology of fundamental Planck scale. Either way, we won't know the answer until we investigate the mind-brain with tools sensitive enough to discover either the perfect structural match between the formal and phenomenal properties of our minds I'd anticipate - or alternatively the "noise" most neuroscientists would assume. Recall it's this (apparent) structural mismatch that helps drive David Chalmers to his naturalistic dualism. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf . Chalmers' other big worry about monistic physicalistic idealism, the argument from microphysical simplicity, reflects IMO an older particle-based rather than field-theoretic ontology.]
What kind of self-conception has a digital zombie?
("Is there such a thing as the self")
* * *
One of the reasons most people balk at the proposal that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical ("Strawsonian physicalism") is scale. Intuitively, the fundamental entities recognised by physics are too small to be inherently experiential. In fact the challenge to naive intuition is worse. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then physical experience exists for exceedingly short times too. Then things get really weird. Unless we modify the unitary dynamics of quantum mechanics, the mind-brain at sub-attosecond time-scales is not a classical ensemble of billions of decohered classical neurons, but rather a single quantum coherent superposition.
Then things start looking up. Not being simply a "sum of our parts" as in a dreamless sleep is a blessing - or as negative utilitarians might say, a curse. Without macroscopic phenomenal binding, we'd be zombies. Perceptual naive realists sometime ask "where did all the weirdness go"; but the bound classical worlds of our experience - our world-simulations - are an entirely quantum phenomenon with no classical analogue.
Is Strawsonian physicalism in conjunction with phenomenal binding as a manifestation of quantum coherence a scientifically testable conjecture? How might we empirically falsify any such proposal? It's not enough simply indirectly to detect the signature of macroscopic neuronal superpositions in the CNS via next-generation interferometry. To vindicate quantum mind - and the physical signature of local and global phenomenal binding in the CNS - laboratory experiment must demonstrate that some superposed neuronal states of the CNS are less prone to thermally-induced decoherence than others, i.e. that when you report "I can see a red airplane flying overhead" that successive superpositions of redness neurons, neuronal motion detectors, edge detectors (etc) are robustly detected as distinct from computationally irrelevant "noise".
The payoff? A perfect structural match between the phenomenology of mind and its formal mathematico-physical description would undercut David Chalmers' Structural Mismatch argument for dualism - and vindicate monistic physicalism and the unity of science.
And if experiment confounds the prediction?
Well the sky falls in, mine at any rate. :-)
[on consciousness and causality]
Epiphenomenalism? Mike, the problem with epiphenomenalism is that if it were true, it's hard to see how it could coherently be stated, not least because epiphenomena would lack any causal capacity permitting us to allude to their existence. And the epiphenomenalist presumably wants to claim that s/he has rational grounds for believing epiphenomenalism is true. Can such grounds be stated without implicitly acknowledging the causal role of the epiphenomena the claim repudiates?
By contrast, if we conjecture that conscious mind discloses the intrinsic nature of physical, i.e. the proverbial "fire" in the equations, then consciousness - and only consciousness - ever has causal efficacy; its properties and time-evolution are what the field-theoretic equations of QM formally describe. This conjecture doesn't entail that a digital PC or any of its software is a subject of experience: unity entails phenomenal binding. And the microphysical implementation details of the software running on one's PC are usually incidental to human purposes, which generally lie at high level of computational abstraction.
Not so when sentient agents want to investigate the nature of consciousness itself...
* * *
Elijah, it's worth distinguishing between panpsychism - the view that qualia are attached in some sense to matter and energy at the most fundamental level - from the view that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. If the latter conjecture is correct - what we may call "Strawsonian physicalism" - then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy.
Even if Strawsonian physicalism is true, then the particular subjective properties of the world's fundamental fields are functionally incidental to, say, the software running on your PC.
But then an analogous point could be made of traditional physicalism: the particular properties of silicon or gallium arsenide (etc) are functionally incidental the software running on your PC too. They are just implementation details.
IMO the real he challenge for reductive physicalism is phenomenal binding. Chalmers believes phenomenal binding has no classical or quantum explanation.
If reductive physicalism is to be saved, then perhaps organic minds are quantum computers running at anything up to sextillions of quantum-coherent frames-per-second.
Fortunately, this issue will be decided empirically.
* * *
In response to your two questions above:
1) I'd be inclined to say that information-sensitive gradients of hedonic tone - rather than hedonic tone itself - are what it feels like to make certain kinds of computation within the architecture of the human brain. Of course, information-sensitive gradients of hedonic tone long predated the human brain. Opioid peptides are implicated in stress-induced analgesia in slug and sails. (IMO) their origin may date back well before the Cambrian.
("The involvement of opioid peptides in stress-induced analgesia in the slug Arion ater.")
("Pain relief’ learning in fruit flies")
("Fruit flies for anti-pain drug discovery")
2) However, I'd qualify this answer. Uniquely(?) and for reasons we don't understand, hedonic tone seems to have some sort of proto-functionality built into its very nature. There is no constitutive tie between, say, phenomenal redness and electromagnetic radiation of 700nm wavelength or whatever. Other kinds of experience / molecular structure could have been recruited by natural selection [or human design] to play a similar computational-functional role, as the existence of synaesthetes attests. But no sentient being could be endowed with an inverted pleasure-pain axis - for example, seeking out ever-greater intensities of agony, panic or despair. Ostensible counterexamples to this conjecture (e.g. endogenous-opioid craving masochists or macho hardmen signalling their reproductive fitness) prove on examination to support such a proto-functional role rather than undermine it.
Mike, panpsychism in its modern guise is the idea that even the simplest entities recognised by physics have a rudimentary consciousness. But there's a more radical proposal canvassed by some philosophers, namely that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of the physical. Recall that a field in physics is defined purely mathematically. What do you suppose the world would be like if the solutions to the fundamental field-theoretic equations yield the values of micro-qualia? On this view, asking if non-physical qualia exert any effect on the physical world is like asking if any miracles occur. No! Physics - or rather tomorrow's physics beyond the Standard Model - is causally closed and complete. Of course, when a physicist acknowledges that science has no idea what "breathes fire into the equations", he'll normally make the implicit assumption that it's devoid of phenomenal properties. But this is an assumption, not an empirically supported discovery. Indeed, the one tiny part of the world to which one does have direct access strongly suggests the assumption is false.
* * *
All sentient beings have a pleasure-pain axis. So it's natural to suppose that consciousness and the pleasure-pain axis are intimately connected by their very nature. But I suspect the vast majority of physically possible states of consciousness states have no affective coloration at all. Rather, natural selection has "encephalised" our evolutionarily ancient primitive emotions in fitness-enhancing ways via projections from the limbic system to the neocortex. This affective dimension of the binding problem has received less attention than its visual or auditory dimension, i.e. how ostensibly distributively processed edges, textures, motions etc congeal into unitary bound objects populating a unitary visual experiential field; and how ostensibly distributively processed notes become the music of a symphony orchestra (etc).
Mike, does the behaviour of drug addicts really undermine psychological hedonism or any other version of the Pleasure Principle? Perhaps such seemingly self-defeating behaviour just illustrates how taking fast-acting euphoriants leads to what economists call "hyperbolic discounting" (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperbolic_discounting). Or more colloquially, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.”
An inverted pleasure-pain axis? Perhaps it's worth distinguishing two questions here.
1) Could we design a sentient organism that responds to external stimuli in ways diametrically opposed to how naturally evolved organic sentients behave to fitness-enhancing or fitness-reducing stimuli?
2) Could we design a sentient organism that will self-stimulate its pain circuitry in preference to its pleasure circuitry?
Here I'm sceptical. By contrast, I think we can program digital zombies to self-stimulate their nominal "pleasure centres" on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and self-stimulate their nominal "pain centres" on Tuesdays and Fridays.
"Soft" epiphenomenalism? For the purposes, of, say, a game of chess, whether the intrinsic nature of the pieces is wooden, silicon, or hypothetical diverse textures of microqualia (etc) is computationally incidental to the gameplay. This isn't the case if we want to design a superconductor, create a superfluid, or (I believe) engineer a unitary intelligent agent endowed with non-classical phenomenal binding. Likewise, if a sentient agent wants to explore the intrinsic subjective properties of matter and energy, or to map out what we naively call the "neural correlates of consciousness", or most ambitiously to devise a comprehensive "Mendeleev table" for qualia, then the diverse subjective textures of consciousness will play an inescapable role by the very nature of the task in hand. For what it's worth, I think investigation of the state spaces of consciousness may take millions of years, perhaps more. By contrast, I reckon constructing the mathematical formalism of a unified TOE over the next few decades will prove surprisingly easy. [Just email me for details]
* * *
JM, ducklings following an experimenter's orange balloon in preference to their biological mother is an excellent example of imprinting. I'm not convinced it's evidence of psychic powers. Statistically significant evidence of paranormal phenomena found in well-controlled scientific studies does exist. Alas at least twenty times that number of negative results remain unpublished. The Standard Model in physics remains intact. Or to put it another way, pit bosses in casinos take a dim view of card counters; but if you're a high roller with avowed psychic powers, you'll be welcomed with open arms.
* * *
Only biological intelligence gives me nightmares...
("Stephen Hawking: 'Transcendence looks at the implications of artificial intelligence - but are we taking AI seriously enough?")
* * *
Not opiated bliss but low-grade wireheading...
("Facebook Keeps Getting More Addictive. Here’s How.")
Mature descendants of Oculus VR will be awesome - and probably more addictive than anything traditional real life can deliver. What they can't do, sadly, is cheat the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill - or so I fear at any rate. We need to re-engineer not just the external world but our own minds.
Can nightly psychosis ever be cured?
("Lucid dreams can be induced, scientists claim")
("Dreams Escalate in Weirdness As the Night Wears On. Early in the night our dreams are grounded in reality, but by the end, anything goes")
* * *
("You're already eating some insects — but you should be eating more of them")
We need a moral revolution: a transition from a society based on exploiting sentient beings to a society based on helping sentient beings. The bedrock of such a society must be global veganism / invitrotarianism. We can more than adequately feed the world's entire human population without deliberately harming other sentient beings. And inadvertently? Well, we can start with protecting higher vertebrates:
("Germany Launches Drones To Prevent Farm Accidents That Kill 100,000 Fawns A Year")
But later this century, utopian technology can yield utopian outcomes - if we so choose.
* * *
Human trials will be time-consuming:
("Experimental Drug TM5441 Prolongs Life Span 4x In Mice")
"How do I know What I think until I hear what I say?"
("You Don't Know What You're Saying")
("Gwyneth Paltrow thinks you can hurt water's feelings by yelling at it")
Pure water, probably not. 75% water, i.e. the brain, yes. If phenomenal binding is classically forbidden, then we need to explore nonclassical explanations of binding or abandon reductive physicalism. I reckon the mismatch David Chalmers identifies between the phenomenology of our minds and the microstructure of the brain may turn out to be an artefact of the low temporal resolution of our traditional tools of investigation Either way, Gwyneth Paltrow is right believe to water is still very poorly understood :-)
("Why Running Simulations May Mean the End is Near")
Or conversely, the failure to generate subjects of experience at different levels of computational abstraction may confirm we are living in primordial basement reality.
[on the Transhumanist Council]
When could the first AI credibly serve on the Transhumanist Council?
"Politics is the mind killer" to borrow a saying of Eliezer Yudkowsky (cf. http://lesswrong.com/lw/gw/politics_is_the_mindkiller/) No doubt in one sense this is true - as anyone who has found himself trading well-worn slogans with a political opponent can testify. In another sense, however, political requires formidable cognitive skills. An AGI that could get all transhumanists singing from the same hymn sheet, let alone rally citizens in a liberal democracy behind its agenda (whether to build paperclip factories, launch a utilitronium shockwave, or build a "Triple S" civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness (cf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTMS9y8OVuY) probably belongs to science fiction.
On the other hand:
* * *
Global governance? Sean, a precondition of the well-being of all sentience is the computational capacity to surveil and micromanage every cubic metre of the planet. The dystopian and Orwellian potential of such technology is well-known. IMO the legal framework of the United Nations, with its WHO-sanctioned commitment to universal health - "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being" - is preferable to the unaccountable NSA.
[on organised religion]
Of the Abrahamic religions, Islam comes second only to Christianity in its body-count. On the other hand, over the last century atheists and deists probably killed more people than theists. Statistically, believers seem to enjoy slightly better emotional health than nonbelievers, though by posthuman standards, the religious are presumably psychotic - and perhaps the rest of Darwinian life too. The religion that comes closeness to a transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience is probably Jainism. But only science can deliver the utopian technology to make this vision a reality.
Cem, well, "psychotic" in multiple senses. There's a relatively uncontroversial sense in which the human mind is unable to grasp the implications of what the mathematical formalism of physics seems to be telling us about reality, e.g. there's no unique classical past or future:
(Everett and the two-state vector formalism of QM)
Or the Landscape of M-theory:
Or that the real action in our lives could be playing out on a surface that is[what we might naively describe as] billions of light-years away:
It's also possible that Darwinian life shares some taken-for granted presupposition or background assumption not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme that is mistaken.
And what we each call ordinary waking consciousness would seem to be just one of zillions of possible state-spaces of consciousness as different as. say, waking from dreaming. Is "awake" caveman consciousness uniquely epistemically privileged?
It's also possible that posthumans will regard Darwinian life as in the grip of some sort of affective psychosis - especially negative utilitarian folk like me.
On the other hand, it's also possible that posthumans will discover the upper bounds to rational agency and opt for some form of affective psychosis themselves, i.e. not to be intelligently blissful but to "bliss out", whether in immersive VR who basement reality.
Who knows? Sorry Cem, it was just a passing comment.
Nick, foibles like a willingness to press the world's OFF button aside, I couldn't hurt a fly.
Peter, what does it mean to say one state of the natural world is "about" another state of the world? Offer a naturalistic account of linguistic meaning and reference is formidably hard. On the face of it, talk of "memories" offers semantics on the cheap. In reality, there may be no such thing as true memories and false memories, merely a continuum. And one of the disconcerting features of post-Everett quantum mechanics is that not merely is there no unique classical future. There is no unique classical past either, further mudding the waters of memory.
* * *
Destroy the world? "I teach one thing and one thing only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering", said Gautama Buddha. But the world has no OFF button, So Buddhists, Benatarians, negative utilitarians and anyone who believes we have an overriding obligation to minimise suffering are IMO best advised to work towards using biotechnology to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering instead.
* * *
Dirk, I think each of us instantiates a throwaway world-simulation.
And if Maldacena (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/9711200v3.pdf) is correct, there may be a sense in which we're a holographic projection of events unfolding on [what we naively imagine to be] a surface billions of light years away.
But IMO there is no evidence we're living in an ancestor-simulation.
I agree with you Dirk in another sense. We all tenselessly occupy the co-ordinates we do. None of us are ever going to be deleted from reality, so to speak.
[on physicalism; FB debate with MIRI's Robby Bensinger and Eliezer Yudkowsky]
Does consciousness disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical?
Is binding a quantum or classical phenomenon?
Does our favourite conjecture offer any novel, falsifiable predictions?
("‘Collision Course’ in the Science of Consciousness Grand theories to clash at Tucson conference")
* * *
Robby, to clarify, I think the failure of reductive physicalism would be a catastrophe for science. Its failure would open up the ontological floodgates (cf. Eric Schwitzgebel's paper "If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious": ) Reductive materialism - and traditional forms of physicalism - cannot accommodate phenomenal consciousness. However, Strawsonian physicalism - the only scientifically literate form of panpsychism - is consistent with the ontological unity of science, albeit at grave cost to our materialist intuitions. But then, why trust our intuitions? After all, what are fields in mathematical physics other than "numbers in space"? Physicalism is best conceived not as a variant of materialism, but rather the view that no "element of reality" is lacking from the equations of physics and their solutions. If we had the equivalent of a cosmic Rosetta Stone, then in my view we could "read off" the values of micro-experience from the solutions to the field-theoretic equations. Either way, the conjecture that the equations of physics exhaustively describe fields of micro-experience doesn't entail that electrons have mental states. A minimum precondition of a mental state - as I understand the term "mental state" - is some kind of phenomenal binding. Both materialists / traditional physicalists and Strawsonian physicalists (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physicalism#Strawsonian_physicalism) must confront the binding problem (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mereological_nihilism) The difference, IMO, is that only Strawsonian physicalism offers a conceptual framework within which a solution will be found.
* * *
The materialist and the traditional physicalist believe that the mysterious "fire" in the equations is devoid of phenomenal properties. This conjecture may be true; but the claim is hard to reconcile with an acknowledgement we have no idea of its nature. By contrast, the Strawsonian physicalist (cf. "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?" http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Its-Place-Nature-Physicalism/dp/1845400593/) believes that the "fire" in the equations is phenomenal, while sharing with the traditional physicalist the belief that [tomorrow's] physics is causally closed and complete, i.e. there is nothing in the world that is not formally captured by the equations of physics and their solutions.
* * *
Yes, the risk of talking past each other is clearly great in these discussions. Thus some folk (of whom I'm one) think that each of us has direct access only to the phenomenology of his own mind, whereas other folk don't like talk of the "phenomenology of mind" at all.
Anyhow, in answer to your question (crudely):
Materialism: the fundamental "stuff" of the world is nonconscious.
Physicalism: no "element of reality", as Einstein put it, is lacking from the equations of physics and their solutions.
Reductive materialism: all intuitively "high-level" macroscopic phenomena are in principle reducible to the behaviour of fundament nonconscious "stuff".
Reductive physicalism: all high-level macroscopic phenomena must be explicable ultimately in terms of fundamental physics [molecular biology reduces to chemistry and chemistry ultimately to quantum field theory [or maybe M-theory - we shall see.]
The notion of "levels" is problematic; but pragmatically, it's clearly indispensable. Confusion arises when philosophers (like Searle) treat causality as though it could operate between what are only different levels of description.
I wasn't intending an idiosyncratic use of terms; but what I call "Strawsonian physicalism", David Chalmers in a recent paper calls "Russellian panpsychism": http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf. Unlike Chalmers, I argue for a monist, not dualist, ontology.
* * *
I'm not a materialist [or even a "materialist"] Strawsonian physicalism doesn't allow for non-physical stuff. Rather it's a claim about the intrinsic nature of the physical whose behaviour the formalism of physics exhaustively describes. This question might seem wholly metaphysical. But [and this point is most clearly made by Michael Lockwood] the one fragment of the physical world to whose intrinsic nature one does enjoy direct access is radically different from what a naïve materialist ontology would suppose.
Whether Kant can really be turned on his head in this way is controversial.
* * *
Robby, I don't believe there are any "irreducible mental, macroscopic, magical, moral, or modal facts" either. But I nor do I see how materialism / traditional non-Strawsonian physicalism can reduce the phenomenology of mind to a hypothetical non-phenomenal "fire" - the noumenal stuff of the world whose behaviour the equations of tomorrow's unified physics exhaustively describes.
[What I'm calling "Strawsonian physicalism" actually traces its way back to Schopenhauer's Die Welt als WIlle und Vorstellung (1819). Schopenhauer argues Kant was mistaken: we do have access to the things-in-themselves that are our own minds. Bertrand Russell, Michael Lockwood and most recently Galen Strawson have developed this perspective further.]
Unformalisable? True or false, the conjecture is that the solutions to the fundamental field-theoretic equations mathematically encode the diverse values of micro-experience.
Acasual? I'm unclear how our answer to the question of the intrinsic nature of the physical - what "breathes fire in to equations and makes a universe for them to describe" - bears on its causal power. Whether it consists in phenomenal properties, or alternatively is devoid of them, isn't the "fire" doing the ultimate causal work?
* * *
It's worth stressing that the only scientific literate form of panpsychism, Strawsonian physicalism, is not animism, i.e. the notion that rocks, plants are unitary subjects of experience. Rather it's a conjecture about the intrinsic nature of the physical. Now of course we can always stipulate, a priori, that the intrinsic nature of the physical, the noumenal essence of the world, is devoid of phenomenal properties. But it's hard to reconcile this a priori stipulation with the widely accepted acknowledgment - not least among materialists - that theoretical physics offers us no knowledge of the intrinsic nature of this mysterious "fire" in the field-theoretic equations. For what it's worth, IMO what distinguishes mental states - and full-blown subjects of experience - from mere aggregates is phenomenal binding. Unless in a dreamless sleep, we're not just patterns of discrete classical "mind dust". How such phenomenal binding is physically possible would take us further into controversial water. But as I said, my working hypothesis is that reductive physicalism is true...
* * *
Eliezer, if Strawsonian physicalism is true, then primordial consciousness isn't some property of quarks additional to - or the product of some property of quarks additional to - the mass, electric charge, colour charge and spin the values of which characterise the different flavours of quark. Rather primordial consciousness is the intrinsic nature of the electric charge, mass, colour charge and spin whose behaviour the formalism of quantum field-theory exhaustively describes. For the Strawsonian physicalist, there is one fundamental problem: what breathes fire into the equations: why is there something rather than nothing? But for the orthodox physicalist-materialist, there are two fundamental problems: what breathes fire into the equations (why is there something rather than nothing?) AND how does this [hypothetically] non-phenomenal fire give rise to consciousness without violating the ontological unity of science?
[Note, unlike e.g. Ben Goertzel, I don't think Strawsonian physicalism, by itself, explains why we're not zombies; it's merely the precondition for a solution. But then not everyone sees explaining phenomenal binding as central to the future of life, intelligence and the cosmos.]
* * *
Robbie, there is a difference between two conjectures:
1) the "fire" in the equations could have been different and yet the formal / structural properties of the natural world, including the formal / structural properties of naturally evolved biological robots, would remain unchanged.
2) the "fire" in the equations could be as now and yet biological robots might have been zombies rather than subjects of experience.
For now, let's focus just on (2).
Reductive physicalism fails if the properties of our conscious minds - both local and global phenomenal binding and the innumerable different textures of our experience - can't be derived from the underlying physics: ideally "read off" from the solutions to the field-theoretic equations of QFT or its successor.
On the face of it, reductive physicalism spectacularly fails. If our naive intuitions about the intrinsic nature of the physical are correct, then we can't be anything other than zombies. A few eliminative materialists do bite the bullet and deny their own consciousness - though still insisting on anaesthesia as well as muscle relaxants before surgery.
For those of us unable to feign anaesthesia yet unwilling to abandon reductive physicalism, where might the solution lie?
I emphatically agree with you about the significance of the phenomenal binding problem. Binding would seem classically forbidden to discrete, membrane-bound classical neurons doing distributive feature-processing, just as it's forbidden (pace Eric Schwitzgebel) to the skull-bound minds of the population of the USA. Indeed, it's the gross structural mismatch between the phenomenology of our minds - the bound phenomenal objects of one's perceptual world and the fleeting unity of the self - and the ostensible microstructure of the brain that helps push David Chalmers away from reductive physicalism to his naturalistic dualism.
IMO dualism is a counsel of despair. Instead, I make the following empirically falsifiable prediction. Phenomenal binding will turn out to be a manifestation of macroscopic quantum coherence in the CNS. What Max Tegmark
takes as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind, namely sub-picosecond thermally-induced decoherence time-scales, I treat instead as a prediction. When we can probe the CNS at the fine-grained temporal resolutions at which macroscopic quantum coherence must occur, we'll discover, not phenomenally and computationally irrelevant "noise", but rather the structural shadows of the bound phenomenal objects of our everyday experience - a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of our world-simulations and mathematical physics.
Macroscopic quantum coherence as the physical signature of sentients rather than zombies is a desperately implausible-sounding prediction; but it's not unmotivated.
Lesswrongers for the most part take a much more robust approach to quantum mind stories...
Robbie what does it mean to claim that agony, for example, is an "unconscious illusion"? I'm all for challenging Sellars' Myth of the Given, and exploring the theory-ladenness of even the most neutral-sounding experience reports. But if someone tells me that their behaviourist-materialist ontology has no room for phenomenal experience, I can't simply make the experience go away. Is my subjectively "seeming" to be in agony an unconscious illusion too? By contrast, if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then we can retain the mathematical straightjacket of the Standard Model. We simply shed the metaphysical assumption that the world is made up of non-phenomenal fields of we-know-not-what.
* * *
Scott Aaronson's apt critique of Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory of consciousness:
Why aren't we zombies?
A scientifically adequate theory of conscious mind must explain:
1) why consciousness exists at all.
2) how consciousness exerts the causal power to allow intelligent agents to investigate its nature. 3) how consciousness can be phenomenally "bound" in seemingly classically forbidden ways. Which systems are subjects of experience and which systems are mere aggregates?
4) why and how consciousness has its diverse textures - ranging from phenomenal colours, sounds, tastes and smells to pains and pleasures to the experience of introspecting a thought-episode or finding a joke amusing.
Any satisfactory theory should offer predictions that are both novel and falsifiable.
Vic, a majority of scientists would agree with your scepticism. I've just read Scott Aaronson's excellent, (mostly) non-technical "Quantum Computing Since Democritus". Despite the playful title, Aaronson's a critic of quantum mind. My one real frustration is he doesn't consider the binding problem.
("Quantum Computing since Democritus" by Scott Aaronson)
Andres, thanks! I unwisely conflated two distinct issues.
Are phenomenally bound, nonbiological quantum minds feasible? (yes, IMO)
Can phenomenally bound biological minds upload ourselves to a nonbiological quantum computer? (no, IMO)
Andres, persuading some people of the far-reaching ramifications of the phenomenal binding problem can be a challenge.
Three background assumptions not all of your audience will share.
1) reductive physicalism.
2) a simulationist rather than direct realist account of perception. Anyone who supposes - typically, implicitly supposes - that each of us is somehow "presented" with the mind-independent world is missing the extraordinary computational power of what the mind-brain is dong in almost real time. If asked, many people will acknowledge that the existence of a mind-independent world is a theoretical inference to the best explanation. Frequently, a few minutes later they'll be assuming that we jointly enjoy shared direct access to this theoretically conjectured wider world in common pubic space.
3) either panpsychism or Strawsonian physicalism, i.e. experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. As you know, I like comparing skull-bound American minds with membrane-bound and supposedly classical neurons /mind dust. By contrast, anyone who believes that consciousness somehow "emerges" from insentient matter and energy can help themselves to whatever they like in the process - including bound phenomenal objects populating a unitary perceptual field instantiated by a unitary phenomenal self, and heaven knows what else.... usually a lot of strongly emergent classical "woo".
Ask a scientifically literate person what it's like to instantiate a macro-superposition of edge, colour, motion (etc) neurons and they'll typically respond "nothing" because the superposition is destroyed too quickly in the CNS. But "nothing" is not an option for the Strawsonian physicalist who believes that the nature of the physical is phenomenal simples as described by QFT. The world isn't classical on short time-scales any more than it is on short distance-scales. It's sometimes naively asked "where does all the weirdness go" but our everyday experience of "bound" classical phenomenal virtual worlds is itself an inescapably quantum effect.
I borrow the language of "local" and "global" binding from Antti Revonsuo.
An example of someone who doesn't "get" the binding problem is Max Tegmark:
on whose mathematical spadework I draw for the physicalism.com paper.
* * *
("David Pearce on the Binding Problem")
Could nonbiological quantum computers solve the binding problem? Jeremy, in principle, yes, I agree - though probably not this century. The sorts of problems that theorists envisage [non-biological] quantum computers efficiently solving - e.g. factoring integers, simulating quark-gluon plasma, solving Pell's equation and so forth - are far removed from the ecological challenge faced by organic robots, i.e. running a phenomenally bound world-simulation in a hostile environment. Thankfully this question will be settled empirically.
("Quantum Computing: the first 540 million years")
* * *
Explaining why consciousness exists at all will be a formidable intellectual achievement. But compare the atomic theory of Democritus / Leucippus. Our understanding of consciousness isn't that advanced; but let's assume an equivalent breakthrough occurs. Centuries of work will still lie ahead before turning the elusive insight into rigorous scientific theory and engineering prowess. The binding problem isn't "just" a problem. Any classical explanation of phenomenal binding seems impossible and quantum accounts are incredible. And how do we derive the unimaginably rich diversity of experience from the underlying physics?
* * *
"Anti-machine propaganda?" Organic robots like us are machines too. So are sentient fourth-millennium non-biological quantum computers. My scepticism that classical digital computers - or classically parallel connectionist systems - will ever support phenomenal binding or unitary minds stems, not from idle prejudice against machines, but rather a commitment to reductive physicalism and the ontological unity of science. Phenomenal binding would seem classically forbidden.
Yet what if (as most researchers would assume) probes of macroscopic quantum-coherent states of the mind-brain at Tegmarkian time-scales reveal nothing but computationally and phenomenally irrelevant "noise" - instead of the structural shadows of the macroscopic phenomenal objects of our world-simulations that I anticipate? Well, empirically falsified conjectures are nothing of which to be ashamed. But farewell to reductive physicalism.
Perhaps it's worth asking: Why do smart, scientifically literate people like the naturalistic dualist David Chalmers ("The Combination Problem for Panpsychism") or the non-reductive materialist Eric Schwitzgebel ("If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious") arrive at such weirdly implausible views. In part, it's because they recognise the magnitude of the problem. I'm more "conservative"; but conservatism comes at a price.
Conversely, mainstream materialists tend to reason
I don't understand consciousness.
I don't understand the emergence of quasi-classicality from the quantum field-theoretic formalism.
Therefore, consciousness must be a function of classical physics.
It's God of the gaps with "classical" as the all-purpose gap filler.
* * *
How coherent are you?
("Quantum biology: Algae evolved to switch quantum coherence on and off")
Can science explain the twin superstitions of theism and materialism?
Matt, only highly scientifically literate people like you could disbelieve in phenomenal experience. Yes, it ought to be impossible. However, why treat the nature of the "fire" in the equations and the existence of consciousness as two different insoluble mysteries? If the latter discloses the nature of the former, then there is no need to spend one's life feigning anaesthesia.
Consciousness in a Petri dish?
("This Is What Brain Cell Conversations Look Like")
[on abolitionist bioethics]
Robby, I certainly wouldn't want to discourage Eliezer from pursuing "the path of courage". But the question is whether we are ethically entitled to inflict the "path of courage" on others? Is involuntary suffering any more ethically defensible than involuntary aging? Also, recall the point of urging hedonic recalibration - as distinct from uniform bliss - is that recalibration can enrich your life while keeping your core values intact - unless, that is, your core values involve the perpetuation of suffering. Would you or Eliezer really urge an alien civilisation based on gradients of intelligent bliss to restore experience below zero? Why? What are they missing? Or more to the point, what are we missing?
Robby, yes, some forms of suffering are functionally essential - for now. But should we retain such unpleasant states when they become optional? I guess a critic might argue they can never become optional, i.e. the "raw feels" of experience below hedonic zero play some computationally indispensable role that prevents the function they implement from being replicated painlessly - whether offloaded onto smart prostheses (nociception) or perhaps by some mild, information-signalling dip in invincible well-being. But the discovery that subjective experience does play such a computationally indispensable role would be an extraordinary result in computer science (cf. the Church-Turing thesis). To the best of our knowledge, the functional role of each of our core emotions can be replicated in silico without any "raw feels" at all - nasty or otherwise.
* * *
Some errors are potentially ethically catastrophic. This [Eliezer's theory of consciousness as a function of meta-cognitive self-modelling] is one of them. Many of our most intensely conscious experiences occur when meta-cognition or reflective self-awareness fails. Thus in orgasm, for instance, much of the neocortex effectively shuts down. Or compare a mounting sense of panic. As an intense feeling of panic becomes uncontrollable, are we to theorise that the experience somehow ceases to be unpleasant as the capacity for reflective self-awareness is lost? "Blind" panic induced by e.g. a sense of suffocation, or fleeing a fire in a crowded cinema (etc), is one of the most unpleasant experiences anyone can undergo, regardless or race or species. Also, compare microelectrode neural studies of awake subjects probing different brain regions; stimulating various regions of the "primitive" limbic system elicits the most intense experiences. And compare dreams - not least, nightmares - many of which are emotionally intense and characterised precisely by the lack of reflectivity or critical meta-cognitive capacity that we enjoy in waking life. Anyone who cares about sentience-friendly intelligence should not harm our fellow subjects of experience. Shutting down factory farms and slaughterhouses will eliminate one of the world's worst forms of severe and readily avoidable suffering.
Children with autism may have profound deficits of self-modelling as well as social cognition compared to neurotypical folk. So are profoundly autistic humans less intensely conscious than hyper-social people? In extreme cases, do the severely autistic lack consciousness' altogether, as Eliezer's conjecture would suggest? Perhaps compare the accumulating evidence for Henry Markram's "Intense World" theory of autism.
Eliezer, I wish I could persuade you to quit eating meat - and urge everyone you influence to do likewise.
* * *
Tricky. If a human slave-owner claims that his slaves aren't conscious in the way "we" are, are critics of slavery entitled to allude to the risk of self-serving bias? Or is this ad hominem? Given the frailties of human reason, I wonder if ethical issues aren't best decided by people without a vested interest in the outcome. But how many slave owners - or meat eaters - would submit to an ethics panel appointed on that basis?
* * *
Robert, recall too that some researchers, notably Galen Strawson, believe that physicalism entails experience, i.e. that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the "fire" in the equations. Chalmers considers pan-experientialist Strawsonian physicalism respectfully. One of Chalmers' main reasons for rejecting even Strawsonian physicalism in favour of naturalistic dualism is that - on the face of it - neither classical nor quantum physics can solve the phenomenal binding problem (or "combination problem"): http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf . Chalmers is too quick here, IMO. Either way, I'd argue phenomenal binding, not meta-cognition, is what distinguishes zombies from non-zombies.
Despite their obvious differences, there is an affinity between Eliezer's view that consciousness is "what an algorithm feels like from inside" and the view that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. But as I understand it, Eliezer is restricting the existence of this inner aspect of algorithmic processing to those algorithms implicated in meta-cognition. By contrast, the Strawsonian physicalist will also include the inner aspect of algorithmic processes involved in generating bound phenomenal objects ("local" binding) and the fleeting unity of perception and the unity of the self ("global" binding).
Alas, what might otherwise seem harmless philosophising has profound ethical implications - one reason we need to get it right. The responsible thing to do is surely to play safe in the meantime. If meat-eaters stop harming beings who later turn out to be insentient zombies - a position I personally still find incredible - then at worst, they've needlessly lost a few pleasant tastes and textures at the dinner table. At best, they'll have halted an ethical catastrophe.
* * *
Robbie, if Strawsonian physicalism is true, then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy because consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Thus causality isn't "sprinkled"; it's integral. For many purposes, e.g. the functioning of a personal computer, the particular values of an information-processor's constituent fields of hypothetical micro-qualia are entirely incidental: swap the silicon chip for a gallium arsenide chip and the programs will execute just fine. No, the particular values of the world's fundamental qualia fields aren't literally arbitrary: they are yielded by the solutions to the quantum field-theoretic equations: no property of the world is missing from the formalism of physics or derivative from it. But in many contexts, these particular fundamental qualia field values are just irrelevant implementation details of information-processing system in question.
Our classical digital computers / silicon robots are zombies. They aren't endowed with unitary phenomenal minds. Strawsonian physicalism is not animism. The challenge - even if Strawsonian physicalism is true - is to explain why organic robots aren't zombies too: to explain how phenomenal binding is possible, and how consciousness can refer to itself. I won't rehash my views again here. But indexical thought, e.g. this particular self-intimating thought, and this particular self-intimating pain lie on a continuum. There isn't some radical discontinuity where pain becomes meta-pain - or on Eliezer's conjecture, when insentient nociception becomes self-reflective phenomenal pain. And the fact that self-intimating agony is more evolutionarily ancient than self-intimating indexical thought-episodes doesn't make the agony any less intense: quite the contrary.
Anyhow, ethically more important in practical terms...
Suppose, say, I hold a minority position. I believe I have cogent arguments that tomorrow's "mind uploads" lack bound phenomenal experience. "Uploads" are just digital zombies that I can molest at will - with no more compunction than the hostiles of today's violent games. Let's suppose the great majority of the scientific community are unpersuaded by these arguments. What is the ethically appropriate way to behave? Forcefully reiterate my position, lament how researchers haven't understood or properly worked their way though the long but compelling chain of reasoning demonstrating that I'm correct - and then cause grievously bodily harm to [what I'm convinced are] just zombies? Or have the cognitive humility to acknowledge that I could well be wrong? Acting out the consequences of idiosyncratic views can be ethically catastrophic.
Factory farming pigs for the dinner table on the assumption they are just zombies is no different.
* * *
Deciding how to act doesn't just involve weighing whether to trust one's own judgement over nominal experts or other smart people. Acting responsibly entails also taking into account the comparative awfulness or otherwise of the outcomes if one is mistaken and the experts or other smart people are right. Ascriptions or denials of sentience are a case where the ethical risks lie almost entirely on one side.
* * *
Matt, the multiverse contains a great deal of suffering. But if zero information equals all possible self-consistent descriptions, then the program needed to generate an Everett multiverse would seem simple. Either way, I'm still not convinced of the link between abundance of pain and pleasure and computational complexity - or indeed behaviour of any kind, as Andres points out. IMO it's a case of allowing our dominant technology to shape our root conception of mind.
How can we persuade our friends at MIRI that this deliriously happy dog is conscious - before passing out with joy at any rate
("Dog passes out from overwhelming joy")
* * *
Is an alien civilisation [or posthumans] who have abolished the biology of suffering capable of rationally appraising whether they should (re-)introduce it? After all, they don't understand - except by analogy - what they are missing. But isn't analogy enough to decide the issue? Compare, say, feeling the one genre of music is less interesting than another genre. No doubt finding something only mildly interesting is radically different from being indescribably bored. But one doesn't need to head further in the direction of indescribable boredom just in case one is missing something. Feelings of indescribable boredom are best relegated to history. Likewise, when we can choose our own hedonic range and hedonic set-points, why set our hedonic floor to be anything less than exalted - by the standards of Darwinian life at any rate? At the very least, there is a strong positive correlation between hedonic tone and quality of life. Metaphysicians can argue whether the empirically valuable is "really" valuable. But making the empirically valuable our default option is a good rule of thumb.
Should we weigh every conceivable downside to radical mood-enrichment?
Yes, I'd emphatically agree with you.
Likewise with abolishing aging.
But then let's go ahead.
[Kosta Giannopoulos writes:
"Is this a reasonable summary of The Hedonistic Imperative?
P1: The only source of value/ meaning in the universe is well-being.
P2: Well-being is only experienced by sentient beings.
P3: Darwinian evolution has lead to vast suffering.
P4. Humans are capable of developing technology to increase the well-being of sentient beings.
P5: Well-being is equally important regardless of the being experiencing it.
P6: Anything that increases the net well-being of all sentient beings is good and therefore right and vice versa.
C: The only important project for humans is to take actions that lead to an increase in the well-being of sentient beings."
A very nice summary, Kosta. Just A couple of points I'd add.
First, perhaps include the realistic prospect of genetic control over both the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range - and the prospect of radically recalibrating hedonic set-points without the loss of critical insight or social responsibility or any cherished values and preferences that one doesn't want to lose. Few critics of biohappiness trouble to make the distinction between being blissful and uniformly "blissed out".
Second, a scenario can be technically feasible and ethically desirable and yet still be uninteresting if you are convinced that a world without suffering will never come to pass - or at least not for millions or billions of years. I think we can outline tentative grounds for believing that intelligent agents really will phase out the biology of suffering over the next few centuries. But there are countless possible defeaters.
Daryl, just a comment on your worry about disproportionate emphasis on non-human animal suffering. Uncontroversially, if anywhere on Earth humans were doing to human intents and toddlers what we are now doing to nonhuman animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses, then shutting down the death factories would be our top priority. The atrocities would be front-page news - rightly. The nonhuman animals we harm are as sentient and sapient as human infants and prelinguistic toddlers. Therefore, the charge of disproportionate emphasis rests on the assumption that some sentient beings are less important than others not in virtue of lesser sentience or sapience, but in virtue of their species membership. For the most part, we now recognise that two beings of comparable sentience and sapience deserve equal consideration regardless of ethnic identity. Why disregard the principle for species identity? The criterion is arbitrary and self-serving. When addressing priorities, there's also the question of low-hanging fruit. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening - including genetic counselling on allelic variations associated with poor psychological health, low hedonic set points, and high pain sensitivity - would dramatically reduce the burden of suffering in the world later this century and beyond. But it's a Hundred Year Plan. By contrast, going vegetarian is trivially easy. Before we can be ethically serious about systemically helping other sentient beings - human or nonhuman - we'll need to stop systematically harming them.
* * *
For evolutionary reasons, most people if forced to choose between rescuing a black baby or a white baby would rescue the child of their own ethnic group. More radically, I suspect many (most?) people, if notionally forced to choose between saving their child or an entire Third World country, would choose their child. Clearly, natural selection has not predisposed us to impartial utilitarian ethics. So should we aspire to de-bias ourselves? Is it reasonable to criticise those who aspire to do so - even if, most of the time, we don't succeed?
* * *
Randall, well, there's a long way to go between Alpha Dog and a von Neumann probe
But the fact a nonbiological robot may trace its ancestry to a pain-ridden human surely doesn't tell against its own functionality - or the functionality of smart prostheses that future humans may use.
Some of us enjoy our own company more than others:
("People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts A new study finds we're not very good at entertaining ourselves.")
* * *
Samantha, let's be cautious here. By "nonsensical", I assume that you mean false rather than cognitively meaningless. Or do you believe that the framers of the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) were gibbering mystical nonsense?
"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 purpose of urging recalibration of the hedonic treadmill rather than uniform bliss is to preserve - and ideally enhance - negative feedback mechanisms, not to abolish them. Information-sensitive gradients of well-being allow critical insight, intellectual progress and social responsibility to be sustained. The difference, even today, is that depressives with a low hedonic set-point tend to experience a low quality of life, whereas hyperthymics with a high hedonic set-point at the other end of the hedonic scale tend to enjoy a rich quality of life. Perhaps compare wireheading, uncontrolled euphoric mania or heroin-induced bliss - all of which are characterised by absent or deregulated negative feedback mechanisms.
"Enlightened"? Not really.
Recalibration allows scientific rationalists to retain our values - and at least some version of our existing preference architecture.
We're not talking about Buddhist nirvana!
"Destroying" ecosystems? Exactly the same argument can (and sadly has) been levelled against ethical interventions to help members of other ethnic groups. Recall how last century when famine broke out in sub-Saharan Africa, critics claimed that providing aid would simply lead to further overpopulation and ecological collapse.
The ethical solution, I hope you'll agree, is not to "let Nature take it course". Rather it's to offer both emergency relief and family planning. The same principle applies with helping nonhuman sentients. Fertility regulation of nonhuman animals in tomorrow's wildlife parks is a more civilised recipe for ecological stability than the cruelties of predation, parasitism and disease.
Should mankind be conserved or transcended?
("The five biggest threats to human existence")
To overcome status quo bias, perhaps ask whether a benevolent superintelligence would create humans if we didn't already walk the Earth.
* * *
Interesting, but still a contradiction-in-terms...
("Google's New Moonshot Project: the Human Body")
* * *
Why not amplify "everything is awesome" neurons in mice and men alike?
("Controlling individual neurons with your brain")
Simone, I agree about the less sophisticated; and (probably) less intense. But fruit flies, for example, enjoy cocaine and ethyl alcohol just like humans. Of course, their cephalic ganglia are small; but the stuff that really matters in human brains is really too, e.g. we've just 40,000 odd dopamine neurons.
("Male Fruit Flies, Spurned by Females, Turn to Alcohol")
'"When everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful."- Stanley Kubrick, on being asked why he never used drugs.'
Thanks Ankur. If (gradients of) everlasting bliss are really undesirable, then a question arises. Could an advanced civilisation founded on that basis be improved by the reintroduction of intermittent misery and malaise? Posthumans may regard using most of today's psychoactives as little better than glue-sniffing. So I can understand Stanley Kubrick's reluctance to try drugs. But imagine if Kubrick had said "When everything is ugly, nothing is ugly." The purpose of urging hedonic and aesthetic enhancement and recalibration is to keep our critical faculties intact by preserving informational sensitivity to, crudely speaking, good and bad stimuli. Just as recalibrating your hedonic set-point will still leave some experiences even more wonderful than others, likewise tweaking our molecular machinery of beauty so that all visual experience is generically beautiful needn't make everything look indiscriminately sublime - unless of course we want it to do so. I for one would be pleased to "see a world in a grain of sand" while doing the washing up. But tastes may vary...
* * *
A botched attempt to defeat aging, or phase out the biology of involuntary suffering, or build posthuman superintelligence, could clearly be disastrous. But in the case of phasing out involuntary suffering, you are questioning (if I understand you correctly Robby) whether its outright abolition is an ethically admirable goal in the first instance.
Uniform bliss, we agree, is inconsistent with critical insight or behaviourally appropriate responses. A world where one's death or misfortune left one's friends and loved ones untouched would be a world where personal relationships have no significance. But whereas I may wish (selfishly?) my death or misfortune to diminish the well-being of friends and loved ones, am I really entitled to want them ever to suffer on my account? If so, in what sense is our friendship based on mutual concern and affection rather than disguised self-regard on my part?
Either way - and much more importantly:
What I'd like to clarify is whether you (and indeed Eliezer) believe that when the technology for a civilisation based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss becomes accessible - and it will - you believe that any sentient being should be compelled to undergo experience below hedonic zero?
This ethical question is very different from the personal question of how each of us, individually, will opt to set the parameters of our own hedonic range.
* * *
Phenomenal pain and nociception are (in the jargon of neuroscience) "doubly dissociable". So too, at least to the best of our knowledge, are our core emotions - both their phenomenology and their functional role. Of course, it can be argued that someone who doesn't experience phenomenal pain [or anxiety or jealousy or disgust, etc] is no longer truly human - even though functionality is preserved. Maybe so. But some of us aspire to be transhuman - or better, posthuman!
* * *
If one is a classical utilitarian, then it is immoral not to ensure everyone enjoys [technology permitting] maximum bliss. But then if one is a classical utilitarian, it's immoral not to launch [technology permitting] a utilitronium shockwave and convert all sentient life willy-nilly into pleasure plasma. At the risk of intellectual flabbiness, I think it's more fruitful to aim at building a broad consensus around a much weaker but still revolutionary principle, namely the proscription - technology permitting - of involuntary suffering in all sentient life. [Likewise - technology permitting - the proscription of involuntary aging.] Unlike states below hedonic zero, there doesn't seem to be anything inherently, self-intimatingly wrong with states above hedonic zero. Contentment isn't as enjoyable as bliss, but contentment is not a self-intimatingly unsatisfactory state of mind. Of course, in the long run I hope we can aim for states of mind far richer...
* * *
Robby, there's a difference between (1) the (tentative) prediction that intelligent agents will completely phase out the biology of experience below hedonic zero in our forward light-cone and (2) the proposal that unwilling humans should be forcibly stripped of a capacity they'd prefer to retain, i.e. to suffer. We'd both argue against the latter! What I'm unclear about is why you're willing to entertain coercion in the opposite direction, i.e. forcing non-bioconservative people to endure a Darwinian biology that they no longer wish to conserve?
* * *
Robby, yes, that's an extremely fair exposition of our respective positions. We'd both agree there is a huge amount of (by any standards) gratuitous suffering in the world that we should get rid of. And I agree with you that the question of what should be the hedonic default for creating new life, i.e. a traditional biological capacity for suffering or not - massively complicates the question of free choice. As you'd guess, I'd argue that if we create new life, then - technology permitting - we have an obligation to produce children blessed with invincible physical and mental health.
And what is health?
I'd favour taking the World Health Organisation definition quite literally: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
I suspect our background assumptions on the nature of existing life - and whether we are ethically entitled to bring more suffering into the world - are different. Thus my disagreement with David Benatar ("Better Never to Have Been": http://www.amazon.com/Better-Never-Have-Been-Existence/dp/0199549265/) lies not with his bleak diagnosis, but rather his untenable policy prescription, human extinction via voluntary childlessness, which falls victim to the argument from selection pressure. The only way to avoid causing harm when bringing life into the world is to prevent the biological substrates of harm from arising in the first instance.
By contrast, I suspect that you (and MIRI) believe human life is already essentially good, but could be made better.
Your idea of what "our ideally informed selves (and the ideally informed selves of our post-human counterparts) would approve of" is doing a lot of work in your argument. Is "ideally informed" a well-defined term? Ideal by whose criteria?
Thus right now IMO we're profoundly ignorant of empirically supervaluable states of mind - as ignorant as a five-year-old child talking about sex. In an empirical sense, at least, if humans could discover how glorious life will feel when animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss, then we'd never want to go back to malaise-ridden human life.
In response, a critic (you?) might argue that the information gained about the subjective quality of such hedonically enriched life would be somehow corrupt - just as, by analogy, I am ignorant of what it's like, subjectively, to take strong opioids; and the information gained by finding out their subjective effects would be corrupt and corrupting ["Don't try heroin: it's too good", a wise junky once said - though in the case of a civilisation animated by a biology of bliss, there is no scope for buyer's remorse.]
Of course, I'd want to rebut this druggy analogy...
Allow me to use what some might consider a trite example. I "star" for excellence the tracks in my entire music collection from 1 to 5. In the future with suitable enhancement technologies, one might star one's music (art, etc) collection from 95 to 100. Other things being equal, it's best to listen to high-starred music - the more spine-tinglingly high-starred, the better. Sure, if listening to music becomes so sublime that the enjoyment derived causes me to neglect my kids, then aiming for even more rewarding music is not desirable. Even so, ever-greater subjective excellence is the default goal.
Anyhow, ultimately, shouldn't we aim for something similar on a much wider canvas - as the default hedonic range for sentient life itself? [Perhaps a hedonic range of, say, 95 to 100 instead of 1 to 5 or worse, 5 to minus 5]. Yes, by all means set out all the exceptions, the caveats, the pitfalls, the problems we need to fix first. You've mentioned some of them. But other things being equal, why not aim for hugely richer hedonic tone for all? Empirically, quality of life will thereby be enriched, even if we can still argue the toss over whether such life is "objectively" valuable.
Biological psychiatrists are far more likely to study folk with either with low hedonic set-points (unipolar depressives) or bipolars prone to huge mood fluctuations and the uncontrolled behavioural excitement of mania. But to use a case-study I cite with express permission, consider someone like the hugely productive transhumanist scholar Anders Sandberg ("I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point"). What if anything would a civilisation of hedonic Super-Anders necessarily lack - as distinct from what might such a civilisation lack if the recalibration is botched?
Obviously, there are too many variables to be confident of any estimated likelihood - or plausible time-scale - of a superhumanly happy future.
But my working assumption is that eventually the very existence of experience below hedonic zero will be best forgotten.
* * *
People prone to negative states of mind are potentially a huge source of existential risk - especially if Eliezer is right about the steady decline in IQ score needed to destroy the world. You ask: if Reality had a notional OFF switch, would I press it? Yes; but it doesn't, so in practice, I think advocacy of hi-tech Jainism, the sanctity of life, and liberal eugenics is (much) more likely to lead to a happy ending than plotting Armageddon. Unfortunately, not everyone equally inclined to a bleak, Benatar-style diagnosis of the nature of life has patience with such a painfully long-drawn-out approach - presumably spanning centuries. At the other extreme, many people would regard the very idea of pressing a hypothetical OFF switch for the world as insane, even couched as a thought-experiment. To guard against status quo bias, I sometimes ask whether they would press an equivalent ON button creating a type-identical copy of our multiverse - with all its joys, yes, but Auschwitz too and all its horrors. (Would you, Robby?) At the very least, life boosters then normally pause for thought...
I share many of your worries about the possible outcome of a botched program to phase out involuntary suffering - and certainly of any premature dash for radical superhappiness. Critics would see these pitfalls as reason not to pursue the goal at all. An obvious analogy here might be the development of AGI. The payoffs - and the risks - of artificial intelligence are spectacular, especially if (as MIRI argue) the risks are far greater than generally credited. But are these pitfalls grounds for abandoning the goal - or alternatively, taking extraordinary pains to get things right?
* * *
Dirk, yes, reward pathway enhancements mean we'll shortly be able to set our own hedonic range - its upper and lower bounds as well as our average hedonic set-point. Speculatively, the worst moments of posthuman life may be orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences. Why settle for the (comparatively) mediocre? I'm not convinced posthumans will understand experience below "hedonic zero" in anything but the formal sense. From a engineering perspective, however, it's harder - but not impossible - to deliver intelligent empathetic bliss rather than raw happiness. Hence the risks of our being too greedy too soon. Worse, talk of sublime bliss for most sentient beings alive today can sound like a cruel joke.
* * *
Does classical utilitarianism dictate the creation of smiley beserkers?
("The Maverick Nanny with a Dopamine Drip: Debunking Fallacies in the Theory of AI Motivation")
("Genetically Engineered Superbabies")
I'm sympathetic. But...
If ethics is ultimately computable, then the kinds of systematising mind most capable of building the superintelligences to compute it may not satisfy our intuitive conceptions of an ethical personality.
[on hedonic tone in nonbiological agents]
The conjecture that only biological nervous systems support hedonic tone isn't quite the same as arbitrary substrate-chauvinism, for example the belief that, say, chess can be played only with pieces of wood rather than metal - and for the same reason the conjecture that all primordial life in the universe will be organic isn't carbon chauvinism. Rather it's a conjecture about the functionally unique properties of carbon macromolecules in liquid water.
Naively, this kind of micro-functionalism is too low-level to be relevant to mind. Surely the logical structure of our thoughts can be implemented in any medium - as programmable classical digital computers or connectionist networks attest? But such multiple instantiation isn't the case if you believe (as I do) that phenomenal binding is the hallmark of the mental - over the past 540 million years or so in fact - and that phenomenal binding is not a classical phenomenon.
How about hedonic tone in artificial nonbiological quantum minds?
I don't know.
* * *
Mike, convergent evolution in other life-supporting Hubble volumes may hold for primordial life, yes; sentient organic wetware with a pleasure-pain axis and probably like "us". IMO information-bearing self-replicators elsewhere in the multiverse that evolve by natural selection aren't going to be made up of silicon or gallium arsenide (etc). But what about post-Darwinian life, i.e. life that can recursively self-edit its own genetic source code and build classical programmable computers, classical connectionist networks and then nonbiological quantum computers? And robotic hybrids of these architectures?
So (2) yes, I think phenomenal binding is necessary for general intelligence - as distinct from e.g. autistic intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Doesn't this claim violate the Church-Turing thesis? By itself, no. After all, a classical digital computer could be programmed to code the base-pairs for the genotype of a biological super-Shulgin who could then explore the manifold varieties of sentience. But this doesn't mean that the digital computer itself is a unitary full-spectrum (super)intelligence.
How about fourth-millennium nonbiological quantum computers and hybrid classical-quantum systems?
I could go off onto a long spiel; but I'd be going way beyond consensus wisdom in the academic community and AI professionals.
* * *
Perhaps Scott’s question might be re-posed: can anything other than a quantum computer be conscious – a fleetingly unitary subject of experience? We take phenomenal binding for granted. Yet its existence would seem classically forbidden. (cf. David Chalmers’ “The Combination Problem for Panpsychism”: http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) So short of giving up on reductive physicalism – a total catastrophe for the unity of science – we’ll need to derive the properties of our bound phenomenal minds from the underlying quantum field-theoretic formalism – not invoke some mysterious classical “woo” or not-even-wrong ”emergence”. Anyhow, here’s an odd-sounding question. What does it feel like to instantiate a sequence of macroscopic superpositions of neuronal edge detectors, motion detectors, colour detectors (etc) in the CNS? An obvious reply would be “nothing at all”. As Max Tegmark has convincingly calculated, thermally-induced decoherence in the CNS destroys such macro-superpositions at sub-picosecond time-scales. However, “nothing at all” isn’t a possible answer if we assume Strawsonian physicalism i.e. the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. (cf. “Galen Strawson’s “Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism”? http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~seager/strawson_on_panpsychism.doc) Further, I predict that when we can experimentally probe the CNS at the time-scales at which neuronal macro- superpositions must occur, we’ll discover not psychotic “noise”, but instead the structural shadows of bound phenomenal objects – a perfect match between the formal and phenomenal structures of our minds. Recall it’s the ostensible lack of any such match that pushes David Chalmers to his naturalistic dualism. Scott thinks that decoherence creates minds; I think it destroys them. Fortunately, this question will eventually be resolved by experiment.
* * *
"A Cure for Love"?
Should we seek love potions or anti-love pills?
We need better ways to get a fix:
Emotional numbing? Jacking up heroin induces acutely the equivalent of a whole-body orgasm - and you don't get much more emotionally intense than one of those. Alas the euphoria is short-lived. Carson, neither Russell nor I advocate mainlining heroin. Insofar as we seek both greater intensity of experience and greater subjective well-being, then one long-term option is amplifying mesolimbic dopamine function. This is best archived indirectly rather than by taking dopaminergic drugs.
[on value realism]
"Can we confidently say anything at all about what the intrinsic factor is that makes things feel good or bad?" Mike, yes, we need an account that does justice to the phenomenology of the pleasure-pain axis without smuggling in illegitimate theoretical baggage. (cf. Sellars' The Myth of the Given" http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3071107) I want to say something like this: the first-person experience of agony, for example, has a self-intimating property of this-ought-not-to-be-so - more formally, a self-intimating "normative force" - and combine this insight with the view-from-nowhere disclosed by the scientific world-picture. No individual here-and-now is special or ontologically privileged. An experience that is (dis)valuable for me is (dis)valuable to any subject of experience, anywhere. A superintelligence with perfect knowledge, i.e. a God's-eye-view combining knowledge of all relevant first-person facts and third-person facts, would act benevolently as a constraint on rationality.
But there are lots of problems here. The hardest, I think, arises right at the outset. What is this mysterious family of hybrid states that combine descriptive and evaluative properties built into their very nature? Can Moore's Open Question Argument (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-question_argument) really be defeated in this way?
[on why anything exists]
Andres, I think we have clues - no more. IMO the explanation-space lies in some form of zero ontology. Yes, we have a powerful intuition that the existence of anything at all is impossible and inexplicable. If this intuition were wholly misconceived, then it's an extraordinary coincidence that the conserved constants (mass-energy, spin, charge) cancel to zero. In principle, too, we can generate the whole of mathematics from the properties of the empty set. And what would the existence of zero information entail? [Zero information = all possible self-consistent descriptions = Everett's multiverse?] My question is not whether this is an adequate explanation as it stands - clearly not - but rather whether the logico-physical principle of a zero ontology is the right explanation-space where we should be looking for an answer.
* * *
Mike, IMO the reason for Wigner's "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences" is that it's the only way to conserve a zero ontology. A number of physicists have been circling round the conjecture in recent years [e.g. Ed Tryon, Alexander Vilenkin ("A universe from nothing"), and most recently Lawrence Kraus: http://www.amazon.com/Universe-Nothing-Lawrence-M-Krauss/dp/1471112683/ . But unless we're radical eliminativists about consciousness, the existence of our teeming multitude of qualia seems to torpedo its prospects. Your toothache exists: it's real.
Assume for the sake of argument that Strawsonian physicalism is true. If we possessed some sort of cosmic Rosetta stone, then we could "read off" the values of qualia mathematically encoded by the solutions to quantum field-theoretic equations - or whatever transpires to be the master equation of physics. And if a zero ontology hypothesis is true, then summing the values of the world's fundamental fields of micro-qualia would yield a value of ...zero. How could it be otherwise?
Unfortunately, I can't think of any way scientifically to test this conjecture - it's just philosophical musing.
* * *
My favourite is Jim Holt's delightful "Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story":
"Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing"
Ed Tryon's original:
"Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?"
which inspired Alex Vilenkin's "vacuum tunnelling from literally nothing" model
Clearly - as they stand - all these explanations are inadequate. But critically, is this the right "explanation space" to look for an answer? If not, I'm completely stumped.
Hah, Pablo that [my https://www.hedweb.com/nihilism/nihilfil.htm] needs updating. The only "original" aspect was to consider the implications for a zero ontology if [what we might now call] Strawsonian physicalism is true and consciousness is fundamental. Can it really make sense to assign qualia numerical values that [non-] miraculously "cancel out" to zero?
Also, Max Tegmark's "Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?"
could perhaps have considered whether the Library of Babel (our multiverse??) contains any information. Is Wigner's "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences" explained by the need to conserve an informationless zero ontology?
....But one of the most vital skills of all is working out who the cognitive authorities are so one can defer to their expertise on the vast range of topics where there are specialists whose expertise exceeds one's own. The vast majority of scientific knowledge must be taken on trust: one can't experimentally check everything oneself. Knowing when to trust one's judgement and when to defer to acknowledge expertise is an extraordinarily difficult skill - between excess deference to received wisdom and drifting off into outer space, so to speak. This is true even if someone has an IQ four of five standard deviations above the mean.
* * *
Information is a key notion in contemporary physics.
Strictly, information can neither be created nor destroyed.
But what would be the case if reality had zero information?
Compare the Library of Babel with, say, the Complete Works of Shakespeare. To describe the Complete Works of Shakespeare takes a lot of information; but the Library of Babel has no net information content at all.
Then let's consider the Landscape of M-theory, which seems to embody all physically possible self-consistent descriptions. The "measure" problem is far more challenging than the so-called measurement problem of pre-Everett quantum mechanics.
Is the information content of reality any different from the information content of the Library of Babel, i.e. zero?
As it stands, of course, this is an inadequate explanation. But what intrigues me is whether the logico-physical principle of a zero ontology is the right "explanation space" where the ultimate answer will be found.
Or are we barking up the wrong tree altogether?
* * *
Seth, yes, in a sense. But can we hope to be effective altruists in the absence of some sort of understanding of the nature of reality? Could learning the answer to the question of why there is anything at all not bear on our conception of moral agency? Let's assume the explanation-space lies in the realm of some logico-physical principle [rather than, say, theology, or something humanly inconceivable]. Even here, I think aspiring effective altruists need to pay heed to quantum cosmology and the theoretical upper bounds to rational agency for a hint of how best to proceed - a desperate challenge when the discipline is in flux.
The joker in the pack is inflation, or rather eternal inflation. Life used to be simple. The wave function of the Universe [tenselessly] exists. No here-and-nows are special. I'm entirely normal in feeling this here-and-now is ontologically privileged. But any such privilege would be inconsistent with both general relativity and quantum mechanics - however they are reconciled. However if eternal inflation is true, there doesn't seem to be any mechanism by which inflation in some wider "supermultiverse" could ever end.
What I can't fathom is whether [assuming eternal inflation is correct] the older "block multiverse" model can generalised to some sort of "block supermultiverse" - or whether instead we must conceive of inflation as an objectively dynamical process - perhaps an analogue of Lee Smolin's "Time Regained" writ large. The problem with a "block supermultiverse" is that such a conception would seem to involve physically realised infinities. I'm not sure "physically realised infinities" make any sense. What definitely doesn't make sense is talk of the "virtually infinite".
The input of a real theoretical physicist would be welcome here. :-)
Thanks Saif. Possibly because I don't think like a mathematician, IMO the evidence for Tegmark's Level III, i.e. Everett, is much more persuasive than Tegmark's Level IV. My intuition favours some sort of timeless zero ontology.
Is time an emergent property of entanglement?
("Entangled toy universe shows time may be an illusion")
How much longer will we keep eating each other
Global Veganism and a Pan-Species Welfare State
Leslie, very many thanks again to you and London Vegans for the warm hospitality and, um... lively reception! Even among vegans, I fear the prospect of a (literally!) all-vegan world will be controversial for some time to come.
Thanks Robert. A joke, yes, but a joke ever more people are taking seriously. I just had a delightful FB from Catherine Gray: "Dear Mr. David, I love you and hate you now at the same time as I can no longer eat meat again!....You have forever ruined it for me! ...." Sadly, I think we have to "ruin" the experience of meat-eating for our friends and our acquaintances - activity not much fun if one likes to be loved, but critical to making meat products socially unacceptable and getting factory-farming and slaughterhouses outlawed.
* * *
"Abyssal otherness"? Nonhuman vertebrates, at least, have the same pleasure-pain axis and the same core emotions as humans - expressed via the same genes, anatomical pathways and neurotransmitter systems. Not least, nonhuman animals share the same desire not to be hurt or harmed. A minority of nonhumans, e.g. large-brained cetaceans like the sperm whale, may be more sentient than all humans; but most nonhumans are of a sentience and sapience comparable to infants and prelinguistic toddlers. Hence the case for treating them accordingly.
Lachlan, I'm sure cannibals harangued by missionaries felt the same way. From an ethical perspective, sadly, we need to ruin the pleasure that some people derive from abusing non-human animals and human children. As an advocate of outrageously wonderful bliss for everyone, I promise this don't come easily. I look forward to an era of in vitro meat and sexbots / immersive VR where everyone can gratify their appetites at will. But in the meantime, I can't see how we're ethically entitled to harm other sentient beings to gratify our own tastes.
* * *
The only species intellectually capable of ending the horrors of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" is Homo sapiens. So whether the project takes a hundred years, or a thousand, it's ethically important we survive. Yes, agribusiness means that humans cause more suffering than any other species on the planet. However, the in vitro meat revolution promises a future where factory-farms and slaughterhouses are closed down for good.
Ethically, should we all become vegans in the meantime? Ideally, yes. Going vegetarian is easy. Some people find going vegan easy too; they report feeling calmer in consequence. A minority of other people report diminished vitality or health problems - problems exacerbated if they are also dieting. They don't know any nutritionists. They don't explore whether, for example, they do best on a high-protein rather than low-protein diet. In some cases, they revert to outright meat-eating - a reversion only encouraged by radical vegans who insist that mere vegetarianism is as bad as eating meat.
Nutritionists regard eggs as the ideal food; the only essential nutrient eggs lack is Vitamin C. Starting the day with an egg and fruit juice makes it almost medically impossible to lack any key nutrient.
Immoral? The abuses of allegedly "free range" chicken farming, the routine killing of male chicks, the transport and slaughter of "spent" hens (etc) are all too real. However, there are sources of eggs that don't involve any of these abuses. I know some radical vegans would morally object to the use of such sources, just as they morally object to in vitro meat on the grounds that the stems cells from which in vitro meat is grown derived originally from a live animal. In my view, it's important not to lose sight of the broader picture - the need to change from a society that systematically harms sentient beings to a society that systematically helps them.
if one has a conflict of interest, should one trust the seemingly self-evident fact that one is unusually free from self-serving bias compared to most people? Or is it more rational to defer to the judgement of ethicists who lack such a conflict of interest? Whether discussing the comparative sentience and sapience of black slaves versus freeborn whites, or the comparative sentience and sapience of factory-farmed nonhuman animals compared to human infants and toddlers, one may sincerely believe that the fact one keeps slaves or eats meat has no bearing on one's disinterested desire for the truth. Unfortunately, a lot of studies paint a darker picture of human tendency to motivated cognition.
None of this is to say that people who don't have slaves or eat meat aren't prone to self-serving bias in other ways.
* * *
A huge gulf clearly separates futurists who worry about astronomical future suffering and those who worry most about astronomical future waste. In the former camp, as a (tentative) believer in the Rare Earth hypothesis, I'm currently sceptical that the "comic rescue missions" I once mooted are even feasible - which would uncut the one NU / NU-leaning argument for pan-galactic radiation.
When might we know the answers to at least the empirical questions? In the case of primordial life suffering elsewhere in our Hubble volume, I'd guess later this century when we understand more about the origin of information-bearing self-replicators on Earth. The discovery that life has independently originated elsewhere in our solar system would devastate the Rare Earth hypothesis - and mean NU / NU-leaning utilitarians would need at least to weigh the possibility of cosmic rescue missions, even if, on balance, we judge the ethical risks of extending beyond our solar system outweigh the potential payoffs.
In the case if sentient sims, if Brian (and a majority of AI researchers) are right about the feasibility of digital sentience, then presumably consciousness will be created in silico within the next decade or two - and my own scepticism about the feasibility of phenomenal binding in classical computers will be confounded.
* * *
Many (most?) futurists have a grand meta-narrative. The future of life in the universe lies in overcoming suffering / superhappiness; or defeating aging / creating eternal youth; or building posthuman superintelligence; or exploring psychedelically altered states of consciousness (etc). My own simplistic meta-narrative originally envisaged us first overcoming suffering on Earth and only later being able to pursue blissful galactic radiation and - if needed - cosmic rescue missions. I couldn't imagine that we'd go back to a biology of suffering any more than today we'd even contemplate reverting to surgery without anaesthetics. Alas, I'm currently inclined to agree with you, Brian, that expansion to other solar systems (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_Year_Starship) may well precede the elimination of suffering on Earth. From a NU / NU-leaning perspective, it's likely no good will come of our expansion - and possibly a lot of harm.
Digital sentience? Well, if our silicon (etc) software spontaneously starts philosophising about its qualia, a nonbiological robot destroys itself after lamenting it can't take the agony of the repair-jobs any more, and other inorganic robots seek out painkillers/ euphoriants (etc), then this behaviour wouldn't prove they were subjects of experience any more than such behaviour proves the sentience of organic robots. Yet it would be strong presumptive evidence. In effect, the question of silicon sentience would have just collapsed into the old sceptical Problem Of Other Minds - a philosophical challenge that may itself be solved with tomorrow's "mind-melding" technologies.
Of course [for theoretical reasons I won't rehash here] I predict this won't happen. We shall see.
Anyhow, I'm totally with you on erring on the side of caution - where feasible - in ethical questions.
[How much caution? Well, I regard it as vanishingly unlikely that the hostiles we waste in Modern Combat are suffering subjects of experience - despite my taking the intentional stance towards their behaviour. But is this relaxed approach ethically appropriate? What credence should digital game-players place on the possibility that our theory of mind is catastrophically mistaken? One recalls the Cartesians who believed animals are insentient automata whose distress vocalisations don't signal sentience and in consequence can be vivisected at leisure...]
* * *
Mercifully, it appears that dietary ethics and long-term human self-interest largely coincide:
An ethical longevity diet
It's possible that the intelligence and longevity gap between vegetarians and meat eaters would be greater with creatine supplementation. I'd like to see large well-controlled human trials.
("Creatine in mouse models of neurodegeneration and aging.")
("The influence of creatine supplementation on the cognitive functioning of vegetarians and omnivores.")
Elissa, yes, the IQ gap between vegetarians and meat eaters (seven points here in the UK) might be widened further if vegetarians took creatine supplements.
Brent, if you find the ethical case for vegetarianism compelling, but notice an idiosyncratic effect on cognitive performance, then you might try starting the day on an ethically sourced free-range [as distinct from "free range"] egg and a fruit juice. Nutritionists rate eggs the "ideal" food; the only nutrient they lack is Vitamin C.
For what it's worth, I don't doubt a straw poll of ex-cannibals would record a small minority who claimed the sparkle has gone out of their lives since missionaries enforced dietary reform. This is not an ethically persuasive argument for baby-eating, human or otherwise.
* * *
Raising vegan children? Teaching your child not to harm others is pretty basic. But so should be teaching nutrition. Meat-eaters can get away with ignorance in a way that most vegans can't; but making nutrition part of the educational core-curriculum can potentially benefit the health of everyone.
* * *
(Modern Agriculture Foundation)
What are the credible time-scales for a future of global veganism achieved via 1) moral argument? 2 Moral argument harnessed to the breakneck development and commercialisation of cheap, tasty in vitro meat products?
Many animal activists find the very idea of "meat" obscene. Most consumers still don't feel the same way. To win widespread public acceptance, it's vital to stress how in vitro meat is "natural", i.e. not genetically engineered. A moral revolution and a technical revolution can potentially go hand in hand.
* * *
Most of the very longest-lived people in the world seem to have eaten sparingly - though without any dietary heroics. Several have been vegetarian:
I know only of a handful of cases of vegan supercentenarians. But strict vegetarianism is a relatively new phenomenon in the West.
* * *
Martyn, "militant veganism" doesn't detract from the principle that "autonomy is sacred". Rather, veganism formalises it! Sentient beings shouldn't harm each other. Bodily autonomy - the freedom to flourish physically unmolested - is about as basic as it gets. Freedom from harm isn't the same as freedom to harm. The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) doesn't say anything about veganism. Nor does it endorse any ethical theory - utilitarian, pluralist, deontological, pluralist, virtue ethicist or whatever. But the Declaration does express our commitment to the well-being of all sentience. Thus virtually all transhumanists would support the development and commercialisation in vitro meat.
"Alienation" from transhumanism? Martyn, well, if we living in the Garden of Eden, then some of us would still feel a sense of alienation and angst. The solution wouldn't be to introduce danger, disease, predation, aging and all the ills of Darwinian life to spice things up. Rather, we should phase out the biological substrates of alienation and angst...
"Freedom"? Isaiah, a case can be made that free-markets and laissez faire capitalism best promote the long-term interests of humans. No case can be made that factory-farming and slaughterhouses best promote the interests of nonhuman animals. Your analogy with Stalinism is puzzling. The tenets of Stalinism did not include respect for the sanctity of life. If we are exploring some sort of analogy with the cruelties of the Gulag, perhaps the plight of nonhumans in our factory farms would be more apt. Eskimos? No doubt in exceptional circumstances a case can be made for eating nonhuman - and indeed human - flesh. This is not a moral challenge most modern humans face at the supermarket.
* * *
Medical science will soon make aging a preventable illness - probably a decade or two after my death, I reckon.
("Can your face reveal how long you’ll live? New technology may provide the answer")
("Can Bodybuilding Hold a Key to Aging?)
Bad news for catastrophising depressives?
(The Surprising Effect of Little Daily Hassles On Your Long-Term Health")
* * *
Is waking life bad for one's health?
("The less older adults sleep, the faster their brains age, new study suggests")
* * *
A self-serving rationalisation IMO:
("Ordering the vegetarian meal? There's more animal blood on your hands")
If corn and soya are fed directly to people - rather than to factory-farmed animals who are them slaughtered - then much less land is needed for agricultural production. Such are the thermodynamics of a food chain. But the inadvertent harm caused to invertebrates and small mammals by agriculture just illustrates how we need a well-integrated strategy for helping rather than harming sentient beings.
Charlie, no doubt some missionaries were smug and self-righteous. Does this strengthen the case for cannibalism? Or are the motivations of its critics irrelevant? Perhaps compare campaigns against human child abuse. Should campaigners be accused of seeking just to "feel good about" themselves? Or commended? How should we respond to someone who threatened to abuse more children unless campaigns against child abuse were stopped?
Also, although the plight of small free-living nonhumans is intermittently dreadful, the plight of large-brained, factory-farmed nonhumans is uniformly dreadful. Free-living nonhumans do not mutilate themselves and each other - as do factory-farmed nonhumans unless tail-docked, debeaked, declawed, castrated (etc).
In practice, shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses will almost certainly be part of a moral revolution that re-examines human impact on nonhuman animals in all areas. In the long run, of course, I hope we can systematically help rather than harm them.
* * *
It's a shame no systematic follow-up interviews were ever conducted in tribespeople induced to quit cannibalism. Whereas most ex-cannibals would report feeling no different on their new dietary regime, a significant minority would say they felt healthier, and another minority would report fatigue, lethargy, digestive difficulties and other health problems.
* * *
This passage about the fictional Affront society depicted in Iain Banks' "Culture" series reminded me of Brian Tomasik's warning against treating cosmic rescue missions as more likely than the propagation of misery and malaise:
"Affront society is described in Excession as being 'a never ending, self perpetuating holocaust of pain and misery', where the strong prey upon weaker species and individuals. The Affront therefore pose a difficult moral problem for the Culture with its reluctance for direct intervention. However, the Affront are intelligent and cooperative enough (ritual or spontaneous duels notwithstanding) to build a stellar empire, and to develop advanced technology, or else steal it. They have also received some Culture technology (such as the ability to build orbitals) in exchange for grudgingly kept promises of better behaviour.
Among their own technological accomplishments is a strong aptitude for genetic engineering, which they developed long before spaceflight. They use this skill almost exclusively on 'prey species', which tend to be changed so as to provide greater sport (and opportunity for sadism) during the communal hunts forming a major part of the Affront culture."
* * *
Rats just want to have fun...
What are the natural boundaries of "us"?
Imagine if GPS were used to track and help the vulnerable rather than exploit them...
("On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a cow")
It sounds incredibly grandiose, but I wish humanity could agree on some kind of hundred-year global species-project to eliminate the biology of [involuntary] pain. A few hundreds years from now, I doubt suffering will be any more relevant to everyday life than the cuckoo clock. But like telling someone with a raging toothache that there are more important things in life than toothaches, such philosophising rather misses the point.
* * *
The Startling Intelligence of the Common Chicken (Scientific American)
IMO what matters is not the size of the brain but the kind of brain cell. Compare the evolutionarily ancient "pain matrix" (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluster_headache). Cluster headaches are sometimes described as the most painful condition known to medical science. Microelectrode studies using awake, verbally competent human subjects confirm that the most intense experiences typically have "primitive" origins. The world's sixteen-billion-odd chickens deserve love and care, not today's horrific abuse.
Tim, if we are morally serious, we take pains to avoid bias. Thus if I am sitting on a review board weighing whether to license a new medicine, for example, I may be sincerely convinced that the fact I own stock options in the applicant company will not influence my judgment. But if I am morally serious, I must step aside. The risk of self-serving bias is too great. Alas, most meat eaters seem (sincerely?) convinced that the fact they enjoy eating animal products does not colour their judgement of the (im)morality of meat-eating. The question is whether this faith in one's own incorruptible rationality amounts to wilful blindness - or something worse.
Rethink Evrything, thinking like a utilitarian and/or a rational altruist can indeed sometimes lead to wildly counterintuitive conclusions. Thus if a (human) slave-owner says he would more effectively promote the abolition of slavery by gathering rich people in developing mechanisation projects; and finding ways to maximise investors' incentive for investing in companies trying to realise this vision, then he might be correct. Rather more fancifully, so too might a human cannibal who claims that rather than stop eating babies himself, he could more effectively reform his tribe's barbarous dietary practices by developing cultured human flesh. But if both options exist, surely the morally appropriate decision is to do both?
[Time spent actively campaigning does indeed have a opportunity cost. Yet publicly signalling that one finds harming other sentient beings ethically indefensible doesn't involve door-to-door evangelism.]
Why We Should Go Vegan
by Magnus Vinding
* * *
"We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”
(William Ralph Inge)
("It’s a dog’s afterlife: Pope Francis hints that animals go to heaven
The pontiff’s remarks were interpreted by some as bringing ‘hope of salvation … to animals and the whole of creation")
The history of food is a horror story. Can it have a happy ending?
("Soylent: Could a slug of nutritionally engineered sludge ever replace the leisurely meal?")
Shlomo, next door already resembles a chemical research laboratory more than a kitchen. However, whether we're talking about (vegan) Soylent, in vitro meat, "Beyond" Meat" that tastes indistinguishable from chicken (etc), our priority should be shutting factory-farms and slaughterhouses. It's good to see Israel is leading the way:
Isaiah, Stalinist persecution of people on the basis of their class of origin is as morally indefensible as persecuting beings of comparable sentience or sapience on the basis of their species or ethnic group. Slaughter methods? Ethically speaking, butchering human or nonhuman animals is clearly better done with less cruelty rather than more. What's in question is whether such butchery should be done at all. Immorality in the guise or amorality? No doubt some white slave-owners felt that making a moral issue out of their "property" cheapened morality. Thankfully, we can now recognise that this argument is flawed. Farming methods? More people can be fed on less land by feeding soya and grain products directly to people rather than to factory-farmed nonhumans whom we then slaughter. So humans and nonhuman animals alike can benefit when slaughterhouses and factory-farms are finally closed.
* * *
There is a case for being respectful, mild-mannered and good-humoured towards people who practise animal abuse, just as there is a case for being respectful, mild-mannered and good-humoured towards people who practise child abuse. But it needs to be said: harming other sentient beings to gratify one's own appetites its ethically indefensible. We shouldn't rest until the last factory-farm and slaughterhouse is shut and outlawed.
* * *
In vitro meat is only one option:
("The Top-Secret Food That Will Change the Way You Eat")
Outlawing the death factories will benefit humans too:
(Red meat triggers toxic immune reaction which causes cancer, scientists find")
* * *
("The Molecule In Red Meat Linked To Cancer Will Suck The Joy From Your Salami Sandwich")
[on lithium and mass medication]
("Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?)
The narrow therapeutic / toxic ratio of lithium salts is a potential problem; but I can't see any harm in drinking Lithia Mineral water: http://lithiamineralwater.com/
Front Aging Neurosci. 2014 Jul 30;6:190. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00190. eCollection 2014.
("Lithium suppresses Aβ pathology by inhibiting translation in an adult Drosophila model of Alzheimer's disease")
[on the Wikipedia abolitionist bioethics entry]
The existing article made me wince; but I haven't edited the text because I'm cited. Bentham? Arguably, a commitment to the abolition of suffering is implicit in an ethic of classical utilitarianism. However, a classical utilitarian must allow trade-offs, i.e. the creation or perpetuation of suffering offset by a greater abundance of pleasure, if and when such trade-offs are unavoidable. Either way, the prospect of phasing out the biology of suffering was only utopian dreaming until the advent of modern science. Likewise with Buddhism: Gautama Siddhartha ("Buddha") reputedly said: "I teach only two things; the cause of suffering, and how to end suffering." Buddhist techniques to overcome suffering do not rely on science; and consequently have limited efficacy. Yet as the Dalai Lama observed at the Society for Neuroscience Congress in November 2005: "If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode - without impairing intelligence and the critical mind - I would be the first patient."
In my view, Lewis Mancini deserves credit for the first published scientifically literate blueprint for an entirely pain-free world - certainly a pain-free human world. [I wasn't aware that Lewis Mancini uses the term "abolitionism" in the bioethical sense in his published work.] A few year's ago, I stumbled across an abstract of his paper, "Riley-Day Syndrome, Brain Stimulation and the Genetic Engineering of a World Without Pain" Medical Hypotheses (1990) 31. 201-207.) on Medline and contacted the then editor of Medical Hypotheses, Bruce Charlton, for a copy of the full paper - which turned out to be available only on microfiche with the publishers Elsevier in the Netherlands. The paper is now available online: here and an HTML version.
With difficulty, I managed to contact the reclusive Mr Mancini to congratulate him. It transpires he doesn't use email or even a computer.
Whether contributing to Wikipedia or even Facebook, so long as one gets into the routine habit of also uploading the content onto one's website(s), the work won't be wasted - even though the Wikipedia version may get mutilated; and the social network version will rapidly get lost and buried.
What Does Utopia Look Like?
Other people's visions of utopia leave many readers cold. Sentient beings have innumerable conflicting preferences and desires. Satisfying more than a small percentage these conflicting preferences and desires is logically impossible. So how do we reconcile the irreconcilable?
Raising hedonic set-points and both the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range will soon be technically feasible - in theory, beyond the range of archaic human "peak experiences". Hedonic enrichment via biotech doesn't just promise a universally richer quality of life of life. Hedonic set-point recalibration can in principle allow you to conserve your existing preferences and values - including preferences and values that conflict with those of other proponents of radical mood-enrichment.
There are a number of complications to this rosy scenario.
Here are just two.
First, although most preferences and values may survive hedonic enrichment, behaviour and cognitive biases will presumably change. If this weren't the case, then a predisposition to low mood, for example, would probably never have evolved in the first instance. Non-social species of animal aren't prone to depression. If you were temperamentally happier, then you would presumably still support your football team, want to win at chess, and prefer Blood on the Dance Floor to Mozart. But for better or worse, a world based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss probably wouldn't support many negative utilitarians.
A second complication to radical mood-enrichment is the existence of people actively opposed to the use of biotechnology for this purpose. If the percentage of opponents is currently small, this may be because only a minority of people are aware that the genetic basis of hedonic set-points and hedonic range is potentially amenable to pre-selection and control.
[cf. "Danish DNA could be key to happiness":
"The catechol-O-methyl transferase Val158Met polymorphism and experience of reward in the flow of daily life":
"Genetically Engineering Almost Anything": http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/evolution/crispr-gene-drives/]
Awareness of the nature of the hedonic treadmill has grown in recent years - though a lot of utopian futurology still blithely ignores its existence and ramifications.
["Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?"]:
Alas there is still surprisingly little scholarly literature on the prospects for systematic hedonic set-point elevation. I'm not sure how ignorance and opposition can best be overcome - other than to note the huge difference between a refusal ever to use such technology oneself and seeking actively to forbid its use by others.
* * *
"By their very nature utopias are static. They hate change because it's a direct challenge to their fantasy of perfection."
(Paul McAuley, The Quiet War)
Recalibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than "maxing out" on bliss poses many challenges; but stagnation needn't be one of them.
* * *
What is the "Ultimate" Outcome of Transhumanism?
Recalibrating the hedonic treadmill can vastly enrich your quality of life. But perhaps there's one other big advantage to hedonic recalibration. It doesn't entail any shared commitment to ultimate goals - or sacrificing your values and conception of the good life on the altar of someone else's vision of the ideal society. Few of us today are as genetically fortunate as transhumanist scholar Anders Sandberg ("I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTu28qn2xcg&feature=youtu.be&t=6m51s ) Yet the prospect of life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss needn't be the sort of utopian dream enjoyable only by our descendants and / or successors. We're on the brink of an era of rapid genome self-editing: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129530.900-right-on-target-new-era-of-fast-genetic-engineering.html ("Right on target: New era of fast genetic engineering") Even some fairly modest genetic tweaking, e.g. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131010105039.htm ("Genes predispose some people to focus on the negative") and 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.") could potentially enrich everyone's quality of life next decade and beyond.
Also, radical mood enrichment can - potentially - complement other core transhumanist goals such as radical life extension. How many times does one hear "I wouldn't want to live for ever", "But I'd get bored" (etc). A predisposition to low mood tends to be life-shortening.
In addition, there is an (IMO) under-explored link between the persistence of involuntary suffering and existential / global-catastrophic risk. For example, how many of the million of so depressed people who kill themselves globally each year would take the rest of the world down with them if they could? Biotechnology (and later this century perhaps AI) opens up frightening prospects to nihilistic depressives. By contrast, the more one loves life, then - other things being equal - the more motivated one is to preserve it. It's probably no coincidence that Anders, for instance, focuses on the field of existential risk.
Pitfalls? Clearly immense.
* * *
Does the study of existential and global catastrophic risk increase or decrease the likelihood of catastrophe?
("Scientists condemn 'crazy, dangerous' creation of deadly airborne flu virus")
The issue is complicated by the divergent senses that researchers attach to the term "existential risk":
[on selection pressure in a post-Darwinian world]
Brian, other things being equal, we might expect selection pressure in favour of a predisposition to low IQ, low EQ religiosity (cf. God's little rabbits"
("Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God")
However, other things may not be equal. "Broodiness" and the desire to have children are themselves amenable to biological manipulation. I don't know how the tension between the strong desire many people feel to produce children and the likely near-ubiquitous use of radical antiaging technologies will be reconciled.
Mark, One tentative reason for predicting (rather than just advocating) we'll phase out the biology of suffering relies on nothing more than an informal straw poll that anyone can conduct. Assume that you can pre-select both the hedonic range and typical hedonic set-point of your future children. What hedonic range / hedonic set-point would you choose? Presumably, as the reproductive revolution gathers pace, there will be strong selection pressure against a whole raft of nasty alleles / allelic variations that were adaptive under a regime of "blind" natural selection. Of course there are all sorts of confounding variables to weigh here.
"Procreative freedom" doesn't just mean whether one is free to have children (cf. the statist "one-child" policy of communist China) Procreative freedom also means the liberty to choose your prospective children's genomes - starting by means of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, but soon via genetic tweaking and eventually major genetic rewrites. Anticipating the nature of selection pressure as the reproductive revolution gathers pace is hard. But all sorts of nasty traits that were adaptive on the African savannah will cease to be so in an era of "designer babies".
Of course the pitfalls and ethical dilemmas here are many and varied.
* * *
Mike, true genetic engineering, i.e. designing novel alleles or novel genes, is intuitively less ethically problematic than choosing between what Nature has thrown up already via the quasi-random meiotic shuffling of sexual reproduction. In practice, preimplantation genetic screening often gets lumped together with the futuristic creation of authentic "designer babies".
[on ecstatic seizures]
"I would give my whole life for this one instant", said Prince Myshkin. Should we manufacture more of such instants?
As a bonus, a hyperactive anterior insula induces a profound sense of time slowing - an analogue of life-extension, perhaps.
Can rapid self-editing of your own genome become the norm?
[on whether suffering makes us "more alive"]
Pain and sport
Wakata, is your argument in favour of retaining (some) suffering directed against lifelong well-being per se? Or only against addling our wits with soma or some other blissful intoxicant? And by "more alive", have you in mind the intensity of lived experience? Or something else? For sure, a couch-potato contentedly watching soap opera on TV will be "less alive" by this criterion than, say, a triumphant marathon runner with aching limbs crossing the finishing line. But biotechnology promises to deliver not just gradients of life-long bliss, but also a radical intensification of all our experience. Thus we know that enhanced mesolimbic dopamine function, for example, is not merely exhilarating. Such enhancement strengthens, drive, motivation, and a sense of things-to-be-done.
I don't pretend to know what kinds of well-being our distant descendants and/or successors will enjoy. But why preserve experience below "hedonic zero" at all?
[on homophobia and homosexual arousal]
Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?
Might better publicising the link between displays of homophobia and homosexual arousal cause bigots to change their signalling behaviour?
The battle lines for the Clash of Civilisations are being drawn:
("Bert and Ernie gay marriage cake leaves Christian bakery facing court threat")
Through a Space Scanner Darkly
Should your left hemisphere have secrets from your right hemisphere?
In the long run, I hope for a posthuman future where privacy is redundant - and we don't have secrets from each other.
Alas radical transparency of Darwinian minds wouldn't be wise.
Should you be open source or proprietary?
("Can the Nervous System Be Hacked?")
(original English version Antinatalism)
Many thanks for another wonderful translation Gabriel (and thanks as well to Ana Paula!) What will be the outcome of ethically responsible anti-natalists opting out of the gene pool?
Anti-natalists like David Benatar face a problem.
How Moroccan Ruler Could Sire 1,000 Kids Revealed
* * *
Sooner or later, I think Benatarians, negative utilitarians and anti-natalists in general are going to need to get to grips with the Argument From Selection Pressure. If you know that your proposed solution to the problem of suffering, i.e. voluntary childlessness, isn't viable, then why advocate such a policy? Individually choosing not to have children, or adopting someone else's kids, just creates selection pressure in favour of any predisposition to pro-natalism. Admittedly, working to phase out the biology of suffering is intuitively a vastly more complicated project than the proposal that humanity should collectively choose not to have children. Presumably we'd also need to sterilise the planet to prevent the horrors of Darwinian life recurring. However, the sociological likelihood of premeditated species-suicide is effectively zero. By contrast, thanks to biotech and IT, we can see - at least in outline - what engineering a living world without involuntary suffering would entail. There are of course too many unknowns confidently to predict any such blueprints will ever be implemented.
[on eliminative materialism]
What does it feel like to be a radical eliminativist about consciousness?
("Is consciousness simple, Is it ancient?")
If some Zen master - or eliminative materialist - remarks "Pain is an illusion", what should one say? One should probably resist stamping on his toe. But to folk who say that you merely "seem" to have a migraine, one can ask how first-person facts like agony - or "seeming to be in agony" - are possible. And if their theory of the world has no place for your first-person experience of agony, then so much the worse for their theory of the world.
I suspect our successors will recognise the Hard Problem of consciousness as an artefact of materialist metaphysics underpinned by a naive realist theory of perception. If you 1) assume that the intrinsic nature of the physical is non-experiential and 2) assume we directly perceive a mind-independent classical world, then consciousness itself, and its binding into phenomenal objects or a unitary self, will seem physically impossible to reconcile with the scientific world-picture. In consequence, a few folk go into denial ("radical eliminativists" and "shut-up-and-calculate" types). Others effectively quit the game ("dualists" and "mysterians"). Other folk hope that the falsification of their preferred ontology can somehow be quarantined from the rest of science. But reductive physicalism can still be saved - so long as we take both our own subjective experience and a realistic interepretation of our best theory of the physical world seriously.
So am I hard at work in the laboratory measuring the telltale quantum interference effects of the sub-picosecond in vitro neuronal superpositions that we've created here at BLTC HQ? Just waiting for the billion-pound funding to come through...
* * *
Let’s consider microelectrode studies using verbally competent human subjects. If intensity of consciousness, or even consciousness itself, were a function of computational complexity or meta-cognition, say, then we might predict that microelectrode stimulation of evolutionarily ancient regions of the limbic system would elicit only faint experiences, whereas stimulation of the prefrontal cortex would elicit the most intense experiences.
The opposite seems to hold. The kinds of consciousness associated with solving mathematical equations, generative syntax, higher-order intentionality (etc) distinctive of mature humans are typically faint, subtle and elusive. By contrast, the phenomenology of extreme pain, pleasure and the core limbic emotions that we share with our mammalian cousins can be intense. Depending on the account we give of phenomenal binding, sperm whales, for example, may be more intensely conscious than humans. Cows and pigs, on the other hand, may be no more sentient than prelinguistic toddlers.
On pain of arbitrary anthropocentric bias, our nonhuman cousins deserve to be treated with equal care and respect.
* * *
Robby, I’m struggling here. In your reply, you say that you’re an eliminativist about first-person consciousness. But in your reply above, you’re acknowledging that first-person consciousness is real. My guess is, that in some sense, we’re talking past each other?
* * *
Let’s say that we undergo merely illusory agony, hear illusory melodies and feel illusory jealousy, and so forth. On an ontology of eliminativist materialism, there shouldn’t be any of this illusory phenomenal “seeming” either. A seeming oasis in the desert may be turn out to be a mirage; but the mirage itself isn’t illusory. Such “seeming” phenomenology can’t be derived from a fundamental physics of fields devoid of phenomenal properties.
On the other hand, if Strawsonian physicalism is true, then a zombie world is physically impossible because such a thought-experiment misconstrues the intrinsic nature of the physical. A world can’t simultaneously be physically identical to our world and yet lack its defining physical nature. P-zombies would be conceivable only if we assume that consciousness doesn’t disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical, i.e. that Strawsonian physicalism is false.
Again assuming Strawsonian physicalism, the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world isn’t hidden – not all of it, at any rate. Rather, the self-intimating phenomenal “fire” in the equations is what one’s mind-brain instantiates: it gives us causal efficacy. The challenge for the Strawsonian physicalist – and indeed any kind of reductive physicalist – is to explain how phenomenal binding is possible. Strawsonian physicalism is not animism. Fortunately, this very difficulty leads to a testable empirical prediction about whether Strawsonian physicalism is true – albeit a prediction that most neuroscientists would find intuitively absurd. [http://www.physicalism.com]
First, thanks for the fair-minded discussion of “seeming”. So if we acknowledge the existence of a stream of subjectively conscious data, can reductive physicalism be saved? Or is there some “element of reality” not captured in the formalism of physics – QFT or its successor? If Strawsonian physicalism is true, then the solutions to the master equation yield the values of qualia – bound instances of which each of us instantiate. Empirical adequacy is essential. Yes, it would be (very) nice to have some kind of notional cosmic Rosetta stone allowing us “read off” the values of qualia from the solutions to the equations – and incidentally rule out inverted qualia in the process. But contra Chalmers, what’s lacking is our understanding of how to do so rather than something missing from the formalism itself.
* * *
Duncan, the term "qualia" has been a disaster for philosophy. Unlike the semantically equivalent term "raw feels", "qualia" sound weird and exotic. Eliminate them, the hard-nosed scientist may suspect, and perhaps the mind-body problem is solved! If instead of saying "qualia", philosophers said "raw feels" or "phenomenal experiences", then maybe fewer people would flirt with radical eliminativism à la Daniel Dennett.
Another source of confusion is the scope of phenomenal experience. Perceptual direct realists may contrast the solid, refractory macroscopic objects in our local surroundings with phenomenal pains, emotions, visual after-images and the subtle phenomenology of serial introspective thought.
In my view, perceptual direct realism is scientifically untenable. We must use a world-simulation model instead. Whether you are dreaming or awake, the solid, refractory macroscopic objects in your visual field are phenomenal experiences internal to your mind no less than phenomenal pains, after-images and the phenomenology of introspective thought. When you are awake rather than dreaming, the behaviour of these phenomenal macroscopic objects tends to track and causally covary with the behaviour of gross, fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent world. This mind-independent world is only a theoretical inference, not anything we ever experience.
You describe yourself as an "Open-Ended Physicalist, which holds that all processes, experienced-based ones included, are governed by physical law".
Here we agree.
Then things get thornier.
Physicalism is often treated as a close cousin of materialism. Materialists assume that the intrinsic nature of whatever the field-theoretic equations of physics describe is devoid of phenomenal properties. Phenomenal properties, says the physicalistic materialist, somehow "emerge" late in the evolutionary history of life. One day, we'll theoretically "reduce" phenomenal properties, just as last century natural science "reduced" life to molecular biology; molecular biology to quantum chemistry; and quantum chemistry to fundamental physics - now enshrined in the Standard Model.
As far as I can tell, this belief rests on faith rather than evidence.
Scientifically literate monistic idealists can be physicalists too. The world is exhaustively described by the equations of quantum field theory (or its more speculative extensions). But on this conjecture, experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - the elusive "fire" in the equations about which physics is silent. According to the physicalistic idealist, the solutions to the fundamental quantum field-theoretic equations yield the diverse values of experience. No "element of reality" is lacking from the equations of physics and their solutions.
Both physicalistic materialists and physicalistic idealists need to solve the phenomenal binding problem. (cf. David Chalmers: http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) Phenomenal binding seems both classically forbidden and (apparently) quantum-theoretically forbidden too in an environment as warm and noisy as the mind-brain. The existence of phenomenal binding is an immense theoretical challenge for reductive physicalism of any kind. Without phenomenal binding, we'd be zombies in all but name: at most, just structured aggregates of "mind-dust". (cf. http://www.physicalism.com)
Any satisfactory theory of mind must also explain how consciousness can have the causal efficacy to allude to its own existence. This is not an insurmountable challenge for idealistic physicalism. For if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. By contrast, the physicalistic materialist needs not merely to show how consciousness emerges from non-conscious matter and energy - in some weak and benign sense of "emerge". The materialist also needs to show - without violating the constraint of reductive physicalism - how this "emergent" consciousness can have the causal power to refer to itself and allow sentient beings to talk about its existence.
There are both affinities and differences between my perspective and Eliezer Yudkowsky's view that consciousness is "how an algorithm feels from inside". IMO, our phenomenal world-simulations disclose what an evolutionarily ancient and extraordinarily computationally powerful set of algorithms feel like "from the inside" - as indeed does the late evolutionary novelty of logico-linguistic thought, a kind of serial virtual machine. By contrast, Eliezer wants to confine phenomenal consciousness to systems capable of reflectivity or meta-cognition. Eliezer doesn't believe that pigs, cows and sheep, for example, are conscious. Pigs, cows and sheep - and human infants! - are just zombies to which mature humans anthropomorphically ascribe experiences.
I'm not confident I grasp how Eliezer believes that phenomenal consciousness has the causal power to talk about itself, or how and why he believes that consciousness "switches on" in insentient systems previously devoid of phenomenal experience when reflectivity occurs.
Perhaps you could invite Eliezer to say more here, Duncan!
* * *
The indiscernibility of identicals (if a = b, then whatever is true of a is true of b, and vice versa) is normally regarded as trivially true. I wouldn't fancy doing maths without it. However, some folk believe the principle breaks down in the brain. Creating conscious machines is quite easy, especially in the absence of contraception. Waking a classical digital zombie, on the other hand, is more of a challenge.
* * *
"Fire? Dave, you can write down the master equation of physics - the ultimate algorithmic compression. Perhaps the equation will fit on your tee-shirt. Yet writing it down doesn't generate a universe. Nor does finding its solutions. Yes, I agree with you: our subjective feelings and emotions disclose a vital clue to the intrinsic nature of the physical. But the equations of physics describe a natural world that is far more extensive than subjects of experience. Any account of the nature of the physical world that disregards reality beyond the skull isn't physicalistic idealism, just idealism.
* * *
Testing for machine consciousness?
Matt is a radical eliminativist about consciousness. Someone who can't be persuaded that he's a subject of experience himself is unlikely to believe in nonbiological machine consciousness. Or rather, he will probably redefine mental predicates behaviouristically. I'm reminded of Cotard's delusion, where the subject believes he is dead or no longer exists. In fairness to Matt, we both hold beliefs that conventional wisdom finds equally odd!
We can in principle discover whether other organic robots are conscious by constructing, e.g. reversible thalamic bridges, thereby finally solving the Problem of Other Minds. No such option is feasible for information-processors with a radically different architecture. On theoretical grounds, I reckon that classically parallel connectionist systems and classical serial digital computers are zombies. Nonbiological quantum computers centuries from now may be bound subjects of experience. If so, I don't know if they'll be capable of reversibly "mind-melding" with organic minds; the technical obstacles would be horrendous. Presumably, we'll have made progress on solving the phenomenal binding problem long before then. Thus the conjecture that phenomenal binding is a manifestation of macroscopic quantum coherence in the CNS will presumably have been experimentally (dis)confirmed.
* * *
"Where does all the weirdness go?" says David Lindley. The usual story runs something like this. The world and our minds are essentially classical. We don't see superpositions of alive-and-dead cats. Newton's laws of motion and inverse square law approximately hold for medium-sized objects. Macroscopic objects 1) occupy definite positions (the "preferred basis" problem) 2) don't readily display quantum interference effects; and 3) yield well-defined outcomes when experimentally probed. The classical macroworld seems to obey different rules from the quantum microworld.
However, perceptual direct realism is false. We need to distinguish the properties of the vehicle of our world-simulation from its content. Without phenomenal feature binding, there are no bound classical objects internal to our world-simulations that can be described by classical laws in the first instance. Compare how someone with simultanagnosia can see only one object at once. Or how someone with cerebral akinetopsia is "motion-blind". And these neurological syndromes involve only partial failures of phenomenal binding. In the case of total failure, we'd be akin to the skull-bound American minds in the experiment I discussed above. Whatever serial or (classically) parallel computations that skull-bound Americans collectively execute for the purposes of the experiment, all that exists phenomenally are 320 million discrete skull-bound "pixels" of experience, not a pan-continental subject of experience. By contrast - and over-simplifying - imagine a movie running at, say, 1015 quantum coherent superpositions a second, i.e. not the synchronous firing of classical, macroscopically distinguishable neurons, but neuronal superpositions. What does it feel like to be such a "movie"?
An obvious response is that it doesn't feel like anything at all to instantiate a succession of quantum coherent neuronal superpositions that last femtoseconds or less. Consciousness, we tend to assume, arises only on a scale of milliseconds via (somehow) patterns of neuronal firings. But this response is not a feasible answer if we assume (with Galen Strawson and others) that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Indeed, the evidence that our minds are "what a quantum computer feels like from the inside" lies right under our virtual noses in the guise of the bound macroscopic classical objects of everyday experience. I'd like to say that this is a prediction of the theory; but of course it's only a retrodiction. We'll know whether our minds are really quantum computers only when tomorrow's interferometry can probe the mind-brain at timeframes at which quantum coherent neuronal superpositions must occur. I say "must"; but such claim assumes that the unitary dynamics of quantum mechanics holds good in the mind-brain. Believers in "hidden variables" and dynamical collapse theories disagree.
[on compassionate ecosystems]
Clearly the speaker isn't one of life's apex predators:
Vincent, advocacy of high-tech Jainism is not inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics. Or rather, if you do spot any fatal inconsistency, please let us know! For now, assume for the sake of argument that a happy biosphere is feasible.
Do you agree it's ethically desirable?
Species essentialism? Well, Nature "designed" male humans to be hunters / warriors. If we start wearing clothes, quit harming nonhuman animals, and stop killing each other, have we thereby lost some vital part of our "species essence" or whatever? And if so, would it matter? Likewise with lions and sheep - the civilising process transcends species boundaries. And why do you object to gay lions?
The technicalities? Well, perhaps see:
Or for a costed case study:
Like life itself, the creation by moral agents of a cruelty-free world may be one of less obvious ramifications of non-equilibrium thermodynamics.
Vincent, humans already massively "interfere" with Nature in countless ways ranging from uncontrolled habitat-destruction to "rewilding", captive breeding programs for big cats, etc. So the question is what principle(s) should govern our interventions. Why can't reducing - and ultimately abolishing - involuntary suffering be one of them?
Hubris or humility? If you stumbled across a toddler drowning in a shallow pond, would it be more humble to let the child drown - rather than "playing God" and yanking her out? Surely not. So why apply the opposite principle to beings of comparable sentience and sentience to toddlers just because they happen to belong to a different species? With God-like powers come complicity.
Vincent, using immunocontraception for cross-species fertility control - rather than predation and starvation - doesn't violate the second law of thermodynamics. Forswearing Ethics? Well, to advocate keeping the status quo is no less of an ethical stance than urging reform. Also, exactly the same arguments against compassionate interventions to aid members of other species can - and have - been used against helping members of other races. Thus if we encounter a tribe of cannibals, would you urge respecting their traditional dietary customs? Or intervention to help their victims? And if famine breaks out in sub-Saharan Africa, do you think we should offer emergency famine relief and family planning support? Or let Nature take its course?
How much longer will "wildlife" exist outside humanly designed "wildlife parks"?
("The Great Extinction")
"Species autonomy"? What about class autonomy? Phylum autonomy? Let's leave such abstracta to the metaphysicians. We live in a world of suffering subjects of experience whose autonomy and subjective well-being faces multiple threats. And the bedrock of individual autonomy and subjective well-being alike is freedom from physical harm.
* * *
520 millions years of horror is enough:
("Brain of world's first known predators discovered")
When did consciousness first arise? If Strawsonian physicalism is true, i.e. if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then strictly speaking, physical reality and consciousness are co-extensive. So technically, a date at (or before) the Big Bang. But if what distinguishes zombies from non-zombies is phenomenal binding, then the inception of unitary non-trivial consciousness in biological organisms presumably dates to the late pre-Cambrian; perhaps the first simple nerve ganglia in multicellular life.
* * *
Mark, yes, the intelligence gap is both large and highly statistically significant. According to a recent National Child Development Study here in the UK, vegetarians record a mean childhood IQ of 109.1. Meat eaters record a mean childhood IQ of 100.9.
Mike, the reason I highlighted "all sorts of methodological problems with these studies" [my caveat, not yours] was to urge against placing too much weight on studies purportedly revealing the comparative cognitive deficits of meat-eaters compared to vegetarians. The National Child Development Study that revealed the deficit isn't fraudulent (unless you know something I don't!). Rather, its results just needs to be interpreted cautiously.
Abortion? The precise age at wish a foetus / unborn child becomes a sentient being is unclear. If I shared your view that a precondition of sentience is passing the mirror test, then the answer if presumably "never" - in which case. even late-term abortion wouldn't cause any suffering. But IMO the neurological evidence suggests a date of around twelve weeks. Either way, far more sentient beings end up on human dinner plates after a lifetime of abuse.
The egocentric illusion? Surely, if I believe that the world is literally centred on me and my interests, then I've fallen victim to it. Yes, the egocentric illusion helps maximise the inclusive fitness of our genes. The scientific world picture strongly suggests that I'm in no way special or privileged. Hence the case for impartiality - rather than founding one's ethics on an illusion.
* * *
From the Roman Colosseum to the Daily Mail. How much has changed?
("When two species go to war... How buffaloes took on pride of lions when one of their young came under attack")
Sordatos, yes, like all analogies it breaks down somewhere. But the difference between a human-run national park and a Roman amphitheatre is a matter of degree rather than kind. And the Daily Mail regularly serves up these spectacles for the entertainment of its readership. Bread and circuses, so to speak.
* * *
More ideology masquerading as science. Imagine the hushed and reverential tones of a David Attenborough describing the effects of another canid predator on the human population.
"the dog ate my baby’s head"
Do we really want a "landscape of fear"?
Or a civilised Garden of Eden?
Cross-species fertility regulation and genetic-behavioural tweaking are needed for free-living and domesticated animals - human and nonhuman - alike. Predators, human or nonhuman, don't deserve to be demonised any more than herbivores, human or nonhuman, deserve to be idealised. But predators are predisposed to harm other sentient beings, whereas herbivores tend to leave them unmolested. Like "torturer" and "slave-owner", some categories of life-form are best relegated to the history books.
* * *
Ideology and bias? It's subtle but insidious. Perhaps listen again to the gentle mood music. David Attenborough says with a chuckle, "We all know how wolves kill various [members of] species of animals" - and then makes light of it. He doesn't mention how wolves eat their terrorised prey alive - a slow agonising ordeal that involves the pack tearing away at the haunches and perineum of the doomed elk, ripping out flesh from the gut and then legs until their victim collapses from shock and exhaustion...
Imagine if David Attenborough had lyricised instead about deliberately introducing e.g. malaria, locusts and cannibalistic head-hunters in sub-Saharan Africa to keep the human population is check - and promote "a more biodiverse and healthy environment". At the very least, we'd recognise a questionable ethic / ideology is at work here.
Terren, you're correct. Helping sentient beings of other species can have unintended consequences. So can helping sentient beings of other races. Compassionate fertility regulation of herbivores [via immunocontraception, etc.] might have unanticipated effects. So might introducing wolves to kill, maim and terrorise their "prey". The potential pitfalls are reasons to proceed with care. They are not reasons to preserve - let alone re-create with "re-wilding" - the cruelties of Darwinian life.
Terren, I agree. Inept interventions can make a bad situation worse. But note here that the interventionists weren't welfare biology activists. Rather human advocates of "re-wilding" deliberately introduced packs of wolves into Yellowstone to harm and kill ("control") herbivores - in this case, the peaceable and inoffensive elk.
* * *
Time for a more inclusive sense of "us"?
* * *
Perhaps release a few man-eating lions and Anopheles mosquitoes while we're at it...
("Rewilding: Bring in the big beasts to fix ecosystems")
"Je ne regrette rien"? Not if you're a rat...
("Rats show regret, a cognitive behavior once thought to be uniquely human")
* * *
"Reprogramming Predators" in Swedish - with many thanks to translator Par Lund. And "The Antispeciesist Revolution" and "High-tech Jainism" in Farsi - with many thanks to translator Vahid Nāb. Whether the mullahs will regard the texts as theologically orthodox remains to be seen. For any non-Farsi-speakers who happen to be reading, the English originals are here and here.
Mark, most Western people know two things - and normally only two things - about Jainism. We know Jains believe in the sanctity of life and Jains (rather ridiculously we feel) sweep the ground in front of them with a broom rather than risk treading on an insect. Of course "high-tech Jainism" is just a metaphor. Alas metaphors can mislead as well as illuminate. If you (or any other member of this group) can devise a killer brand [no pun intended] I'd love to hear it. All the other candidates ("The Hedonistic Imperative", "Paradise Engineering", "Abolitionist Bioethics", etc) have minuses as well as pluses.
* * *
Kevin, intuitively, it's impossible. But this is where the exponential growth of computer power comes in. What happens when we harness the CRISPR gene-editing revolution in biotechnology, nanorobotics, and the computational capacity to surveil, micromanage and control every cubic metre of the biosphere as intimately as your windowbox? No, I'm not talking about some Kurzweilian Technological Singularity, or a MIRI-style singleton, AGI, just recognisable extensions of exiting technologies harnessed to an ethic of high-tech Jainism.
Dmytry, as it happens, I'm a supporter of the effective altruist movement - and in particular:
But just suppose I secretly lead a champagne-and-caviar lifestyle and eat babies for breakfast. Would such behaviour somehow strengthen the case for conserving the horrors of predation? No; it would just mean I was a hypocrite!
Vegetarianism? Yes, I'd certainly urge a strict vegetarian lifestyle. Closing factory-farms and slaughterhouses would benefit humans and nonhuman animal alike. And the plight of free-living nonhuman animals in our future wildlife parks? What on earth makes you suppose I favour slow and painful deaths for our fellow creatures? On the contrary:
Dmytry, conservation biologists currently spend huge time, effort and resources into e.g. captive breeding programs for big cats - which will otherwise be extinct in the wild by the middle of this century.
If you agree with most ethicists that we should aim to reduce involuntary suffering in the world, then such initiatives aren't rational. A few commentators are radical enough to suggest we should phase out most existing Darwinian lifeforms altogether. (cf. http://robertwiblin.com/2010/01/21/just-destroy-nature/) Maybe. I'd argue that if we do want to conserve recognisable approximations of Darwinian life in our future wildlife parks, then cross-species fertility regulation and genetic tweaking will be needed. Otherwise, we'll be perpetuating the cruelties of Darwinian life indefinitely.
Concern for the plight of nonhuman animals doesn't show indifference to the well-being of humans - any more than contributing to Third World charities shows indifference to the well-being of Aryans. Rather such concern reflects an impartial benevolence to which we should all aspire if only rarely achieve.
As an advocate of high-tech Jainism (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/transhumanism/neojainism.html) I'm mystified why you assume I'm bent on destruction! In my view, we shouldn't be harming sentient beings at all. This view isn't the same as urging reproductive rights for carnivorous predators - or Anopheles mosquitoes. And Robert Wiblin does not want to kill the poor. He's a leading light in the effective altruist movement, most notably 80,000 Hours:
At talk on NU at KLSE? Martyn I wish I could be a fly on the wall Martyn - although given your views on ecosystems, I'd hope for an absence of spiders. There is no necessary link between phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering and the maximisation of welfare. But information-sensitive gradients of well-being will be vital to preserving critical insight and intelligent behaviour. And once technology allows us broadly to fix the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range - and approximate hedonic set-points - why settle for the mediocre when we can enjoy the sublime? And why restrict our benevolence to individual taxa of sentience?
Just humans? Probably wise! A fitting venue for the talk too - given that Karl Popper is generally credited with first formulating NU. Unless one stresses that contemporary NU is focussed on phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering - rather than suffering simpliciter - one risks getting diverted to discussions of Armageddon.
* * *
All sentient beings need something similar, but I'd worry about wearing one NSA-approved:
("Smart collar brings poorly pooches to heal")
* * *
Every sentient being deserves a name:
("How Parrots Name Their Chicks")
Yes, closing factory-farms and slaughterhouses takes precedence over strict veganism, IMO. Indeed, here I don't always agree 100% with some of my vegan colleagues. It's true some that people feel better on a vegan diet - typically, they feel calmer and less anxious than before. But conversely, another minority of people report problems. Rather than reverting to meat-eating, the obvious thing for them to do is eat a (genuinely) free range egg a day - from a farm where "spent" hens and male chicks aren't slaughtered. And then consult a nutritionist to explore precisely what they were lacking on their vegan diet.
[for complicated reasons, some people do feel better on a high protein diet. But if one knows this is the case, the high protein diet in question can be vegan. Alas nutrition is not part of the core curriculum.]
[on whether plants feel pain]
The belief that plants can suffer reflects a pre-scientific animism. A precondition of being a unitary subject of experience is a central nervous system. No selection pressure to evolve an energetically expensive central nervous system could exist on sessile organisms such as plants, which lack the capacity for rapid self-propelled motion. Recall we know how to switch off pain altogether in animals: nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene cause congenital analgesia. Plants lack a SCN9A gene - or any functional analogue. Even if one believes that individual cells can support rudimentary experience, the encasement of individual plant cells within thick cellulose cell walls prevents any plausible form of phenomenal binding. By contrast, a pig, for example, is at least as sentient (and sapient) as a human prelinguistic toddler - and deserves to be treated accordingly. In practice, the only people who affect concern for plant suffering are meat-eaters who want to rationalise animal abuse. We're not dealing with pre-scientific animists arguing in good faith that plants have souls. Strictly speaking one can't literally disprove the belief that plants (or rocks or mountains etc) suffer pain. Such a conjecture is inconsistent with the scientific world-picture and reductive physicalism. But then we don't understand how creatures with central nervous systems can solve the phenomenal binding problem (cf. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10448000). Critically, however, without a unitary subject it makes no sense to say there is a subject of experience who suffers - and can be worthy of moral consideration.
Mike, if you are arguing in good faith that plants deserve ethical consideration on the grounds that they are sentient, let's explore the empirical evidence. But if you believe that plants have rights, then the case against harming our fellow vertebrates - whose sentience and sapience is more readily demonstrable - is all the stronger.
("Study: Testosterone Is Truth Serum")
Are women typically less truthful than men? Are low AQ/low testosterone function males less truth-oriented? More plausibly at work here is a different cognitive style: crudely, systematising versus mentalising. If you're primarily focused on social cognition and (truly!) understanding the mental life of others, then you're more likely to employ the benign deceptions on which social life depends. By contrast, social interaction with high-AQ / Aspergers-ish folk - some of whom would struggle to lie if their life depended on it - can often be challenging.
* * *
("Sensitive? Emotional? Empathetic? It could be in your genes")
Millions of us take great pleasure in doing stuff at least as awful as Fred West or Jeffrey Dahmer in video games. Of course, typically we wouldn't do such stuff in real life. But it's telling that to relax men, in particular, enjoy activities that involve inflicting a great deal of harm - virtually or otherwise. Would you rather play "Modern Warfare 5" or "High-Tech Jainism 5"?
Arguably, all empathy involves disproportionate over-identification. It's possible that behaving ethically will entail becoming - or building superintelligent nonbiological machines that become - rule-bound hyper-systematisers on a cosmological scale. But without the initial impetus, i.e. an empathetic recognition that another sentient being akin to ourselves is in distress - the enterprise seems unlikely to get off the ground. Do we need a post-masculine civilisation?
("Society bloomed with gentler personalities, more feminine faces: Technology boom 50,000 years ago correlated with less testosterone")
A lot of futurology is driven by extrapolation. Most current conceptions of posthuman superintelligence tend to express the combined high IQ and high AQ of their male authors. Yet extrapolating from the article instead, what if the de-masculinising trend continues and accelerates? Imagine if posthuman superintelligences have a hyper-feminine AQ asymptotically approaching zero, so to speak, i.e. super-empathisers who can access any possible first-person perspective and act accordingly, leading to a radical expansion of the circle of compassion? No, right now a civilisation of hypersocial superintelligences might not sound a credible scenario. The opposite case can be made that the world needs more rule-bound hyper-systematisers and fewer sentimental cat-lovers. Also, casual talk of "high-AQ" / "low AQ" and the "extreme male brain" theory of autism spectrum disorder is no doubt simplistic. But perhaps such scenarios deserve to be explored in more depth.
* * *
Is an intelligent agent who designs seed AI with a classical utilitarian utility function that goes FOOM and thereby ignites a utilitronium shockwave 1) a hyper-empathetic saint? Or 2) a sociopathic super-terrorist?
* * *
Is high or low AQ the best default setting to promote ethical behaviour?
("Psychologists Have Uncovered a Troubling Feature of People Who Seem Nice All the Time")
Globally and perhaps cosmologically, we may need rule-bound hyper-systematisers more than we need hyper-empathisers - though the hyper-systematiser will often display real deficits in social cognition: a high AQ is not just a personality variable but reflects a real difference in cognitive style. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathizing%E2%80%93systemizing_theory) But I think we need carefully to distinguish two senses of "disagreeable". Someone who is prone to spite, malice and Schadenfreude is disagreeable in the unambiguously bad sense of the term. But the rule-bound hyper-systematiser pursuing his - I use the sexist pronoun deliberately - vision of what's morally right regardless of social popularity is essential to moral progress - naive as "moral progress" may sound.
I don't fall into either category, most of the time at any rate - though perhaps likening meat eating to the abuse of small human children comes close. And of course in the right environment, an intelligent agent can be an agreeable hyper-systematiser...
Getting rid of the "raw feels" of pain and anxiety is ethically desirable; but not abolishing their typical functional roles. By contrast, both the phenomenology and functionality of malice, spite, gloating and schadenfreude deserve to be consigned to the dustbin of history - raw feels and genetic-fitness enhancing role alike. Any other candidates for dual destruction?
("Schadenfreude in Kids: Others' Spills Can Spell Joy")
* * *
Masculinity can be conceived as an extreme form of autism spectrum disorder: but do autistic hyper-systematisers make better effective altruists?
("Face 'model' accurately weighs gender points")
* * *
"Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
Can Big Pharma rise to the challenge?
("Fed Up with Waiting? Timely Activation of Serotonin Enhances Patience" | Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University OIST)
* * *
Fake it till you make it - and don't stop?
("The Irritating Reason That Overconfident People Get All The Breaks — PsyBlog")
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
[Ahimsa in Jainism] "Additionally, because they consider harsh words to be a form of violence, they often keep a cloth to ritually cover their mouth, as a reminder not to allow violence in their speech."
A useful reminder? Are you a Jain in word or deed or both?
The distinction between verbal and physical violence is worth preserving. But the neurological story is less clear-cut.
("Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones")
The admirable Brian Tomasik is not a Jain; but he has qualms about going on country walks for fear of inadvertently treading on insects. Brian, James Evans, and I all have a childhood history of rescuing worms on tarmac from desiccation - low tech-Jainism, so to speak. The reason for using the term "high-tech Jainism" is that (1) the title spikes the guns of folk who claim negative utilitarians are committed to promoting Armageddon; and (2) it highlights how our benevolence should extend towards even the humblest sentients and (3) altruism can be effective only if high-tech. Although IMO triage is needed, i.e. prioritising the interests of higher vertebrates and working our way "down" [across] the phylogenetic tree, the advent of CRISPR and gene drives technologies will shortly make effective high-tech Jainism technically feasible even for insects - a task I'd always assumed would await an era of mature molecular nanotechnology.
* * *
Mysticism? Samantha, as I scientific rationalist as I'm sceptical of Jain metaphysics as you are. But there are strong indirect utilitarian grounds for enshrining the principle of the sanctity of life in law. The "high-tech" part of the slogan alludes to the need for more effective strategies of harm-reduction than sweeping the ground before one's feet with a broom.
Biodiversity? Well, yes, if we phase out human predatory behaviour, and likewise cannibalism, the sickle cell allele and cystic fibrosis, we will thereby have reduced the behavioural and genetic diversity of Homo sapiens. But biodiversity can still be increased overall. Personal genome editing allows the customisation of human genomes in countless ways otherwise forbidden by natural selection because creating such forms of life would entail crossing "fitness gaps". Similar enhanced biodiversity is feasible for nonhuman animals in tomorrow's wildlife parks too. In short, behavioural and genetic diversity of behaviour can potentially be increased - if we so desire - without the horrors of Darwinian life as it exists today.
What sorts of god should we become?
("Let's Play God")
[on the integrity of science]
("Scientific Method: Defend the integrity of physics")
Ellis and Silk suppose that theories modifying the unitary dynamics of standard quantum mechanics are empirically better supported than Everett. Perhaps the authors might at least have considered the decoherence program (e.g. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1404.2635.pdf) Also, there is a difference between illicitly suspending the norms of empirical science at currently accessible energy ranges and theoretically tackling, e.g. physics at the Planck regime. Is there supposed to be a cut-off point (decades, centuries, millennia?) at which a conjecture ceases to be scientific because its energy regime isn't plausibly experimentally accessible before that date? Who decides? (The editor of Nature?) And when did, e.g. the atomic hypothesis become science rather than pseudoscience? In short, warning flags are welcome, but not falsification police.
I remain a boring pillar of scientific orthodoxy:
("Evidence for Psi: Thirteen Empirical Research Reports")
This is the crux. We're all prone to confirmation bias, self-deception, wishful thinking, and a thousand-and-one cognitive frailties. ["The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool" - Feynman] But the genius of science is that our personal frailties don't matter! If your "crazy" conjecture makes novel, robustly replicable empirical predictions, then it doesn't matter if you dreamed it up when tripping on acid after a consultation with Mystic Meg. Such unorthodox origins don't inherently make a conjecture unscientific. The problem comes when one starts coming up with all sorts of ad hoc reasons why one's pet theory should be immune from the normal canons of scientific testing - when it becomes essentially unfalsifiable or "not even wrong". It's not as though psi researchers are claiming effects at e.g. Planck-scale energies beyond the range of experimental investigation.
Richard, Ben, could you clarify. Does conjecturing the existence of psi yield any falsifiable predictions? Is there any kind of "experimentum crucis" that can be performed to settle the issue?. Surely if someone who professes psychic powers claims to be able - even capriciously and erratically able - to induce, say, deviations from the Born rule, this claim is testable??
I am still unclear why psi researchers never employ their powers to make exponentially large amounts of money. The money could be used to fund psi research and promote worthy causes. (This isn't intended as a flippant question. It's what I'd do.) Even with even a extremely modest psi powers, one could soon become extraordinarily rich doing, say, high-frequency trading in the options and futures markets - where one would be up against computer software, not a rival psi warrior.
Out of curiosity, is there anyone here who doesn't hold at least one belief - and possibly more than one belief - that most mainstream scientists would reckon is crazy? Yes, to be honest, talk of psi privately exasperates me. Psi would shatter my conceptual scheme and demolish everything I think I know about the natural world. But if a psi researcher comes up with a single robust and replicable experiment that delivers results inconsistent with QFT and the Standard Model, then (s)he should be congratulated.
I'm still not convinced it's prejudice - rather lack of replicability. Compare EPR and Bell's inequality experiments. Regardless of how offensive to commonsense your theory is, if it yields concrete testable predictions that can be experimentally replicated by sceptics and believers alike, then it's going to be vindicated.
* * *
Is it possible we have double standards here? Imagine if Roger Penrose, for example, or any other dynamical collapse theorist, were instead to claim that the departure from the unitary dynamics of QM they propose was unreliable, context-dependent and immune from robust independent replication. Of course, Penrose (and Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber et al.) do no such thing - quite the reverse. So shouldn't we say just that our hunch is that experiment will show them mistaken rather than that they are guilty of "pseudoscience"?
Absurd as it sounds, if a theorist proposes that fairies, psi, gravitationally-induced wave function collapse (or whatever) creates a novel, robustly replicable phenomenon in defiance of existing theory, then yes, IMO it's science - though confirmation would send other theorists scrambling for alternative explanations. Where we should worry about the integrity of science is if empirical falsification of the novel prediction leads to ever more complicated and ad hoc escape-clauses for why the prediction failed.
(Of course, there's no absolute dividing line between good science, bad science and outright pseudo-science.)
* * *
As theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg once observed, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." The existence of psi would re-enchant the world. Instead of a meaningless dance of atoms and molecules, proof of psi would mean there are deep and humanly meaningful connections underlying it all. I'm disenchanted.
Richard, as I teenager, I read John Taylor - both his popular physics, his flirtations with psi, and subsequent public recantation. I haven't personally investigated psi since (Study of any topic always has an opportunity cost). Like you, John Taylor was both smart and a man of great integrity. Neither of which protect any of us for error. If you are vindicated, fantastic. But until then, sorry to be boring and orthodox.
The cross-currents of transhumanist thought are many and varied...
("Indian court asked to rule on whether Hindu guru dead or meditating")
Perhaps Alcor should target the guru market.
Does your dopamine system need tweaking?
("Dopamine helps with math rules as well as mood")
"If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
Could the walls of our ignorance soon come tumbling down?
("Telepathy is now possible using current technology")
Should we rewrite the source code for "human nature"?
("Genome Editing: The ability to create primates with intentional mutations could provide powerful new ways to study complex and genetically baffling brain disorders.")
"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” (Kierkegaard) Where are we going?
http://reviewthefuture.com/?p=264 ("039: What is Transhumanism? | Review The Future")
A careful definition of transhumanism will be much richer than a single slogan. But I don't know of a sharper way to compress so many ideas and currents into a single sentence. Do we think speaking of a "Triple S" civilisation omits anything critical - assuming you have thirty seconds at a party to explain what's a transhumanist?
("Cynical? You may be hurting your brain health")
But sometimes it's hard to suppress unworthy thoughts.
I envy Narcissus:
("What Do Animals Think They See When They Look in the Mirror?")
Should life-extensionists avoid paydays?
("Paydays and mortality. Cash to crash. Why getting paid can kill you")
"Maybe this world is another planet's hell."
("Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics. Decline of religion in the West has created a rise in black magic, Satanism and the occult")
"Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous." (Einstein)
("Man crushed to death by giant crucifix dedicated to Pope")
Can a silicon robot come to believe it's the Son of God?
Creationists turn to robot for ethical guidance
Life in dopaminergic overdrive:
("The god effect. Religion spawns both benevolent saints and murderous fanatics. Could dopamine levels in the brain drive that switch")
Can AIXI be a super-Shulgin? Or just an invincibly ignorant zombie?
Alas one of the greatest scientists who ever lived passed away late Tuesday afternoon.
("Psychedelic hero Alexander Shulgin nearing death")
We met at Shulgin Labs earlier this year. (photo)
* * *
The UN as the ultimate guarantor of the rule of law may be the least-worst option. The UN's public health arm, the World Health Organization (WHO) promotes a radical conception of health as “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
This is abolitionist bioethics at its best.
* * *
Emotional machines? Or machines that behave emotionally?
(At this point, someone normally asks, "What's the difference?" - and I have to suppress the unethical desire to stamp on their toe.)
("Facebook AI director Yann LeCun on the importance of emotional machines")
* * *
Dreaming? A large minority of the folk we interact with are zombies. If one has doubts about their sentience, then one can ask the impostor to write a short text on qualia - or indeed on anything else. I tried this exercise once during a lucid dream. The text waved around erratically on the page; I couldn't bring it into focus to read even a sentence.
Graeme, you ask how conscious experience could be encoded in memory. I guess the answer I'd give is that all conscious experience is wholly present tense. But (somehow!) the brain paints on a subjective feel of "pastness" to some kinds of experience that track fitness-relevant events in an organism's life history. Perhaps compare pathologies of this hugely fitness-enhancing adaptation such as Déjà vu:
and its rarer cousin Jamais vu:
* * *
A lot of my gut instincts are libertarian. But take something like antibiotics. On the one hand, we want to defend the right of anyone to do whatever they want to their own body - including taking drugs. On the other hand, ignorant abuse of antibiotics both in agribusiness and by human consumers is setting up a health catastrophe for everyone. Unfortunately, I'm not sure I have any good libertarian, non-statist ideas for a solution.
HI and consent? Martyn, well, elephants can't sign consent forms, and neither can prelinguistic toddlers. What I meant was that no one who is mentally competent - I use the term loosely - need realistically fear that the authorities are going to drug them with euphoriants or whatever. Of course I can't say this with certainty: the scenario just strikes me as sociologically far-fetched.
* * *
Why do we like "sad music? Not because it makes us sad...
Why do we like "sad" music?
('Beautiful but sad' music can help people feel better")
* * *
Paedophilia? People don't choose their sexual orientation. Any person with the appalling bad luck to be that way inclined has a moral and legal obligation to remain celibate for life. I just wonder what percentage of people baying loudest for the blood of anyone who fails in this obligation would themselves be able to practise lifelong celibacy if they'd drawn the short straw of life.
* * *
("The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs")
* * *
Time to bathe in the blood of young virgins?
("Young Blood May Hold Key to Reversing Aging")
Not scanning Jeanne Calment's genome is a crime.
("Never Say Die")
Alas borrowing a lock of her hair would count as "desecrating her grave". yadda yadda.
Jeanne Calment is buried in Arles. If a global pandemic were raging and her DNA held possible clues to a cure, then the code would be sequenced on public health grounds. Aging is best viewed in this light. The sensibilities of the relatives? She has none (well, I don't know about second cousins, three times removed). Alas this initiative would not currently be lawful; and I have to tread a fine line between giving the appearance of urging grave-robbing. Heaven forbid.
* * *
Aging: a survivable illness?
("Research explains action of drug that may slow aging, related disease")
People born with "Syndrome X" have an immense ethical responsibility...
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?
("Worms live longer when they stop eating")
Less pain, more gain?
("Lifespan boost for mice that feel less pain")
* * *
Is masculinity a mitochondrial disorder?
* * *
Are you a supermonkey?
("Monkey leaders have different brains. Neuroscientists discover that primate brains show consistent differences according social status)
The abolitionist strand of the transhumanist movement needs more alphas to take the project forward. But there's a tension here...
("Power robs the brain of empathy")
* * *
"Pain is a condition of existence...we cannot eliminate it...to get rid of pain would be to get rid of sensation altogether"
("The war on pain and why we can't win it")
("Should we eliminate the human ability to feel pain?")
* * *
What is it like to fall in love with the Eiffel Tower?
Is romantic attachment to animate objects more rational? To generate the perfect love match, raise gay identical twins apart (to overcome the Westermarck effect) then introduce?
("In the End, People May Really Just Want to Date Themselves")
* * *
Neurons of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your skulls.
"Sharing Mind and Body reveals a year in the life of the astonishing Hogan sisters -- the only known twins who doctors suspect can see what the other sees, and feel what the other feels."
Perhaps full-spectrum superintelligence will diagnose Darwinian life as some sort of a severe autism spectrum disorder; but it will be hard to cure.
* * *
("Scientists Link Brains Together To Form An Organic Super Computer")
* * *
Instead of seeking happiness in the abstract, should we pursue concrete, specific, well-defined goals - like perpetual activation of our twin "hedonic hotspots" in the CNS?
("Cultivating happiness often misunderstood, says researcher")
Should human faces be civilised?
("Human faces have evolved to minimise the damage caused by fist fight over millions of years, study finds")
* * *
Let's get recursive...
("Virtual Reality System Lets You Explore Your Brain in Real-Time!")
[on information-sensitive gradients of fascination]
Stuart, perhaps consider a -10 to 0 -+10 boredom-fascination scale - with +10 representing experiences that are utterly fascinating and -10 experiences that are soul-destroyingly tedious. If you could choose, where would you spend your time? Yes, if you were perpetually locked into +10, then you'd lose critical insight. Everything would be indiscriminately fascinating. How low would you want to go? And assuming informational sensitivity to "good" and "bad" stimuli, how much time would you want to spend there? Now imagine a future +80 to +100 scale with the lower reaches serving as the functional analogues of boredom. Would you want to head south? How far? Why? The same story can be told with information-sensitive gradients of bliss. How they'll infuse post-human states of consciousness is unknown. But I know of no technical reason why they can't, at a very minimum, be utterly sublime.
You raise the cognitive analogue of congenital analgesia. Recall that just as I don't advocate inducing congenital analgesia, I don't advocate its cognitive analogue either. Information-sensitive gradients of physical, emotional and intellectual well-being are functionally different from undifferentiated uniform bliss.
Al, you wonder whether the contrasting existence of -10. i.e. soul-destroying tedium is what makes the +10 so utterly fascinating. Perhaps compare the ingredients of a great movie. The movie won't consist of ninety minutes of non-stop melodrama. To be sure, there may be moments of cliff-hanging suspense. But there will also be changes of pace. Scene-setting and character development may be functionally analogous in a weak sense to "boredom" insofar as one's pulse isn't racing as it is in the climax. Yet the movie itself is never less than gripping.
Could real life ever be similar?
Well, for a small minority of people, lucky in the genetic literary of life, it already is - although real life is always messier than the movies.
Al, apologies for the lack of clarity on my part - I just meant that in order for the audience to savour the enthralling +10 scenes, the gifted director / scriptwriter doesn't need to make his audience even mildly bored, let alone stupefyingly bored by way of contrast.
* * *
The unpleasantness of negative feedback? Matt, compare two sensitive lovers responsive to positive and negative feedback. Lovemaking may have its dips and peaks. But the process is generically pleasant throughout. Characterising the dips as "unpleasant" would be misleading. Could mental life ever be similar? Yes, IMO - if we're prepared to alter the genetic dial-settings of the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range.
Matt, undoubtedly many people do enjoy life a lot of the time. But for hundreds of millions more, it's abject misery. Inducing pure bliss by activating our twin hedonic hotspots with full mu opioid agonists does not induce increased worry about death. On the contrary, the effect is to banish anxiety altogether. However, genetically shifting our hedonic range and average hedonic set-points is consistent with high functioning pro-social well-being. I suspect our descendants will believe they've emerged from a Darwinian hell-world. I reckon they're right.
("Suicide kills one person worldwide every 40 seconds, WHO report finds. Some of worst-affected countries have suicide rates 40 times higher than those where fewest people kill themselves")
Matt, universal access to free preimplantation genetic screening would be a start. We already know of alleles/allelic variations implicated in high and low hedonic set-points. At least until the CRISPR genome-editing revolution matures, the rest of us are stick with our existing genetic source code. But creative psychopharmacology - by which I don't mean taking recreational drugs - can benefit even the nominally well.
* * *
Will even CRISPR genome-editing soon seem quaint?
[on effective altruism]
When a consensus exists on what ethical causes to prioritise, and how to do so most effectively, then people who reckon they will never be great writers, campaigners or whatever might consider. But it's vital EAs get these foundational questions right first. Joseph, I think you should be using your formidable intellect to hammer out these issues with EAs (and others) rather than trading hours for cash you then donate.
(cf. http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/when-should-an-effective-altruist-be-vegetarian/ ) Vegetarians tend to be more intelligent and longer-lived than meat eaters. Therefore - other things being equal - EAs who are vegetarian might be expected to do good more intelligently and more effectively for longer. Of course, many confounding variables potentially muddy the waters here. But might the comparative IQ gap between vegetarians and meat-eaters - seven IQ points here in the UK - widen further if vegetarians were to take creatine supplements? Quite possibly; it would be good to see a large well-controlled trial.
"Inconvenience"? Becoming a strict vegan is mildly inconvenient in today's society. Merely going vegetarian leaves just as much time for pursuing other EA projects.
More importantly, however, the nonhuman animals abused in factory-farms are as sentient - and demonstrably as sapient - as human infants and prelinguistic toddlers. Shouldn't EA's be exploring ways systematically to help other sentient beings rather than actively harming them? Couldn't the money spent systematically harming sentient beings be more effectively used elsewhere? I don't understand how hurting, harming and killing sentient beings for frivolous reasons ("But I like the taste!") is consistent with being an EA. Recall that factory-farmed nonhuman animals are so desperate they have to be declawed, debeaked, tail-docked, castrated (etc) to prevent them mutilating themselves and each other. Only profoundly distressed humans self-mutilate. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses are the source of one of the most severe and readily avoidable forms of suffering in the world today. I'd like to think EAs will be in the forefront of the campaign to get them shut down and outlawed.
Weighing the implications of one's own fallibility is important too. What's the worst that follows from going vegetarian if, say, Eliezer Yudkowsky is right and nonhuman animals (and human babies) aren't conscious? Mild personal inconvenience and perhaps marginally diminished taste satisfaction at some mealtimes. OK, perhaps the extra 10 seconds that one spends reading the product-label at the supermarket could notionally be spent on other EA work; but this sort of consideration becomes a bit fanciful. On this sort of calculation, what about the opportunity cost of the time carnivorous EAs spend defending meat-eating? By contrast, if other EAs are correct and what humans doing to other sentient beings in factory-farms and slaughterhouses is ethically catastrophic, then the implications are momentous.
Sometimes epistemic humility is in order. Might not this be one of them?
[on the biology of disappointment]
The biology of disappointment:
("Feeling Bummed? How Disappointment Works in the Brain")
[on world government]
Just as domestic peace depends on the nation state's monopoly of the use of force, world peace may ultimately depend on a world state - presumably the UN - based we may hope on principles of democratic accountability and the rule of law. One way to achieve this outcome might be a "sunset clause" in which political leaders formally agree to cede national sovereignty decades hence. Sadly, scenarios of world government are more credible in the aftermath of a catastophic nuclear war.
[on posthuman emotions]
Time for post-human emotions
("Sadness lasts longer than other emotions")
[on the Transhumanist Party]
Zoltan, this is great. After initial doubts (I'd have been sceptical about the invention of the wheel!) I think Zoltan's initiative has potential to take the transhumanist movement forward hugely. The policy platform of the Transhumanist Party was the critical issue for me. Now it's nailed to the mast, so to speak, I'd certainly urge transhumanists worldwide to lend their wholehearted support! Tonight's big debate at Stanford: will a consensus emerge?
Is there some immutable law of Nature that says organic (but not silicon) robots must grow old and die? Is there some immutable law of Nature that says organic (but not silicon) robots must suffer? None that I know of. The purpose of using preimplantation genetic screening - and eventually genetic engineering - to load the genetic dice in our future children's favour isn't to "make them in our own image". Depressives don't want to have depressed children. Victims of age-related disease don't want to create children prone to age/-related disease. (etc) Rather, the purpose of replacing today's genetic crapshoot with intelligent planning is to allow tomorrow's people to lead rich, happy and perpetually youthful lives. Living happily ever after may not be ideal by some criteria. But a transhumanist future is a lot more civilised than the horrors of Darwinian life we experienced today.
* * *
There is nothing to stop primitivists giving up clothes, sanitation, medicine, dentistry, electricity and the trappings of civilisation and going to live in harmony with the Amazonian rainforest. In practice, technological civilisation is most comfortably critiqued from the inside - using the very tools whose evil one denounces.
Three policy planks I'd like to see in any Transhumanist Party platform are: 1) Universal free access to preimplantation genetic screening for all prospective parents.
2) Universal free access to cryonics.
3 Development and commercialisation of in vitro meat with a view to shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses [by year (?)]
(1) would easily pay for the other two.
Cryonics? Kosta, reanimating malaise-ridden Darwinian primitives is the last thing I'd do if I were I were a posthuman superintelligence. But if a key plank of any transhumanist party platform is support for radical life-extension, then a failure to combine an Alcor with a SENS approach risks being simply cruel. In effect, telling older people that medical science will likely find a cure for aging after you're dead-and-buried may create more suffering than it mitigates. Also, funding is easier to secure if a donor conceives (s)he has a vested interest in the outcome. In order to increase the appeal of cryonics to women (who generally aren't interested because they wouldn't want to live if their family were dead) a Family Program might be promoted.
* * *
Biotech should be used for pan-species hedonic enrichment. Already we could use preimplantation genetic screening to load the genetic dice in our prospective children's favour.
http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/pressreleases/danish_dna_could/ (serotonin transporter gene)
http://www.medicaldaily.com/pessimism-genetic-research-shows-your-outlook-might-be-cloudy-genetic-design-259573 (ADA2b deletion variant)
[on friendly AI]
Should we build friendly artificial intelligence?
("Robots could murder us out of Kindness, Engineer Claims")
Ken, yes indeed. Perhaps this is one reason to argue for seed AI with a utility function of high-tech Jainism rather than classical utilitarianism.
* * *
The belief that unitary subjects of experience are going to (somehow) "emerge" from classical digital computers may one day seem as quaint as vitalism. As superstitions go, it's mostly harmless; but it's still a distraction from the plight of sentient biological organisms.
* * *
Two mirror-touch synaesthetes can't have a fist fight. Less intuitively, two mirror-touch synaesthetes, one or both of whom is a zombie can't have a fist-fight either: they are constitutionally friendly. Full-spectrum superintelligences will presumably be endowed with superhuman knowledge of both first-person and third person facts - and act accordingly. In that sense, we may expect the Circle of Compassion (cf. http://www.amazon.com/The-Expanding-Circle-Evolution-Progress/dp/0691150699) to continue extending until it embraces all sentience within our Hubble volume.
Such convergence runs counter to the Orthogonality Thesis.
How can humans possibly anticipate the values of posthuman superintelligences? Yet not wantonly harming other subjects of experience is perhaps best viewed as a constraint on decision-theoretic rationality (cf. http://lesswrong.com/lw/gu1/decision_theory_faq/ for an orthodox individualistic account) rather than as a simplistic constraint on morality. Recall we'll shortly be entering an era of naturalised telepathy - technology-assisted "mind-melding" allowing access to each other's experiences as though they were our own. Wantonly harming another sentient being may be recognised as akin to wantonly harming oneself, i.e. irrational. Presumably, post-human superintelligences won't entertain false human-like notions about the metaphysics of personal identity.
All well and good, but might an intelligent agent choose to remain ignorant of other perspectives? Presumably yes - just as it might choose to erase, say, its knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics. Yet insofar as it opts for ignorance, then it won't be superintelligent.
Yes, I can think of a few...
Not least, a classical utilitarian value system apparently dictates launching a utilitronium shockwave - with all such a shockwave entails. If value can be naturalised, then classical utilitarianism is the most credible candidate.
* * *
Duncan, let's assume that the IJ Good/ MIRI/ Bostrom Intelligence Explosion scenario is viable. As you know, IMO our post-human successors will also be our descendants; but let's assume that I'm mistaken. On this basis, how likely is a paperclip-maximizing scenario compared to a utilitronium shockwave scenario? The latter is more credible IMO because an imperative to utilitronium-tile the accessible cosmos is a disguised implication of the kind of sort of utility function with which human designers might plausibly program Seed AI. I say "disguised" because none of the tens of thousands of scholarly articles on utilitarian ethics considers utilitronium shockwaves, whereas thousands discuss wayward trolleys. Actually, not everyone would accept this distinction; Eliezer Yudkowsky, for instance, would probably rate a utilitronium shockwave scenario as just a variant of paperclipping.
Are (super)intelligence and (super)motivation orthogonal? Perhaps this depends on whether we're talking about "narrow" (super)intelligence or full-spectrum (super)intelligence. Full knowledge of all the first-person and third-person facts - a useful but ultimately untenable distinction - may lead to convergence for the same reason that if I could feel your pain (etc) as my own, then I'd act accordingly.
Duncan, yes, we can be fairly confident that full-spectrum superintelligences won't be ignorant! What will be our conception of (super)intelligence in a world of ubiquitous naturalised telepathy (cf. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11077094/Brain-to-brain-telepathic-communication-achieved-for-first-time.html.), or mind-melding via reversible thalamic bridges, or next-generation designer psychedelics? A defender of orthodoxy with a conception of intelligence shaped by autistic IQ tests, SAT scores and the Church-Turing thesis might protest that this isn't what they mean by (super)intelligence. But in my view, today's simple-minded notions of (super)intelligence are really about savantism.
* * *
In one sense, I agree with you Samantha: saying "I don't know" won't make you rich or famous; but it's the only intellectually honest answer we can give. Most of everything we've written above will probably seem pretty naive a few decades from now - and perhaps much sooner. That said - and here we may differ - I believe that the pain-pleasure axis offers at least a clue to the nature of posthuman value and morality in a wider cosmological context. Of course, to claim (as I do, tentatively) that the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world's inbuilt metric of (dis)value would be controversial. Not least, it challenges Hume's Guillotine:
* * *
As can be demonstrated experimentally, one's left and right cerebral hemispheres may sometimes have different utility functions. In case of conflict, acting to satisfy the weaker preference of one community of neurons over a stronger preference of another community of neurons wouldn't be so much immoral as irrational...
Now flash forward a few decades to an era when technology allows us reversibly to mind-meld as intimately as possession of a corpus callosum allows the cerebral hemispheres of placental mammals to commune at present. Once again, acting to satisfy a weaker preference over a stronger preference may come to be recognised, albeit with multiple caveats, not just as immoral but as arbitrarily irrational as privileging the preferences of one cerebral hemisphere over the other in the CNS today.
The obvious objection here is that we don't yet share mutual access to each other's minds. In the absence of such radical transparency, runs this argument, I might be selfish in always privileging my whims and desires over the strong preferences of everyone else; but surely I'm not irrational in doing so? But this is precisely the metaphysical assumption underpinning traditional decision-theory that may be questioned. In my view, it's irrational to confuse an epistemological limitation with a deep metaphysical truth about the world.
* * *
Samantha, perhaps recall Hume, "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger". Most people - unless they are negative utilitarians - would find world-destruction immoral. Above I was exploring - successfully or otherwise - whether there is a sense in which whimsical or arbitrarily self-regarding behaviour is irrational - on the plausible assumption that posthuman superintelligence will not behave irrationally.
* * *
Jordan, above I was arguing that a scientific "view from nowhere" dictates giving equal consideration to the interests of beings of equal sentience regardless of asymmetries of epistemic access - if you'll pardon the barbarous jargon. I was making a point about hypothetical posthuman decision theory - though of course the ethical ramifications of such a view (if correct) are profound.
* * *
"There are no "ifs" in Ray Kurzweil's vocabulary..."
The Rise of the Robots
The one twist in the plot that almost nobody anticipates is everything goes as planned and we life happy ever after...
("Rage Against the Machine: A Brief History of Evil Movie Computers")
("The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time")
Such enviable innocence of imagination. Darker minds can come up with far worse - and more scientifically credible to boot. But there are times in life when it's best to keep one's mouth firmly shut.
* * *
What exactly are we trying to amplify?
Nootropics survey: results
Perhaps see PiHKAL for a richer conception of cognitive enhancement.
A simplistic conception of intelligence, but worth reading
("Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming")
* * *
On the other hand...
('Smart' drugs won't make smart people smarter")
Should intellectual progress be treated like competitive athletics?
("Put down the smart drugs – cognitive enhancement is ethically risky business")
* * *
Resveratrol: a mood-brightening antiaging smart drug?
("Antidepressant effects of resveratrol in an animal model of depression.")
But on a less optimistic note:
("Diets rich in the antioxidant resveratrol fail to reduce deaths, heart disease or cancer")
Metformin, however, continues to look promising, at least in women:
("Diabetes Drug Metformin Slows Aging, Says PNAS Study")
Likewise humble ibuprofen:
("Ibuprofen use leads to extended lifespan in several species, study shows")
* * *
Oxytocin-boosting pills should be more widely available. But are they morality pills? No doubt some entrepreneur could market oxytocin antagonists as "morality pills" too, on the grounds they promoted a greater capacity for impartial rule-following.
* * *
Jason, Kim, Very many thanks. Kim, I'm worried with my unscripted comments I may be leading your students into bad habits! I don't really think your students - or any of us for that matter - should be spending significant time narrowcasting within the walled garden of Facebook. What would be ideal is something like http://www.lesswrong.com focused on abolitionist bioethics - both the theory and practice. Alas such an intellectually high-calibre forum doesn't yet exist. [Despite my scepticism about the likelihood of an imminent Intelligence Explosion and singleton super-AGI as prophesied by IJ Good/Eliezer and MIRI, I think they've done an amazingly good job with the lesswrong forum. And Luke Muehlhauser's "Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline" could be read with profit by many professional philosophers:
Friendly AI - and Machiavellian AI?
("Face map of mixed feelings could help AIs understand us")
"Hope is the crystal meth of emotions. It hooks you fast and kills you hard.”
("Humans Have More Than Two-Dozen Universal Emotions")
FOOM: The Intelligence Explosion...
as imagined by Hollywood.
Get ready for the Second Coming?
("Creationists buy robot to study technology's impact on humanity")
Assume for the sake of argument that a FOOM scenario is technically credible - as distinct from conceptions of superintelligence that involve, say, hypersocial cooperative problem-solving between embodied agents. In the wake of such a hypothetical Intelligence Explosion, what is the comparative likelihood that singleton super-AGI will seek to tile the cosmos with paperclips (etc) rather than utilitronium, i.e. the comparative likelihood of an outcome that reflects alien values versus an outcome that reflects a disguised implication of (one of) our existing values?
[on uploading your mind to a memory stick]
What is happening to the Daily Telegraph?!
Performance per watt of computing is growing exponentially at nearly the same rate as Moore's law, i.e. the doubling of the number of transistors on integrated circuits every two years or so. For sure, all sorts of reasons exist why a "Triple S" civilisation may never happen. Prohibitive financial cost is unlikely to be one of them. Perhaps I should add that not all transhumanists believe that "mind uploading" is feasible. Can a classical digital computer solve the phenomenal binding problem? On the other hand, nonbiological quantum computers later this century and beyond may make Cray supercomputers - and the human mind-brain - seem as powerful as an abacus.
("Google’s Ray Kurzweil on the moment when computers will become conscious")
In 2045? Religious believers may plead for "a leap of faith". It's incongruous when scientific rationalists do the same. We have no evidence that classical digital computers are capable of solving the phenomenal binding problem and "waking up".
you say "almost certainly claim to be conscious". Interesting. I can understand why we might want to program software [benignly] to deceive end-users in various contexts, e.g. robo-carers for the elderly. But have we grounds for anticipating advanced digital zombie software will spontaneously start lying to us?
* * *
Can classical digital computers be programmed to behave in ways that systematically deceive most humans into believing they are sentient? Yes, eventually. For example, even now we could program one of the Pentagon's battlefield robots both to articulate a versatile range of verbal responses to damage ("I've been in agony all this time; but until you rigged up this speech generating-mechanism I wasn't able to express my profound inner pain and despair" etc) and physically to search out the morphine first-aid kit. But aside from contrived scenarios where we are experimentally trying to deceive other humans, are futuristic silicon robots going spontaneously to seek out pain-relief or sentience modules? No, if my account of phenomenal binding is correct - a very big "if", for sure.
We shouldn't conceive posthuman superintelligence as though "it" will have an IQ of 800, say, but rather as something qualitatively alien. A capacity for (naturalised) super-telepathy may be just one of the attributes of full-spectrum superintelligences. Not "Eugene Goostman" on steroids. In principle, we can test for consciousness in other vertebrates - and purported digital whole-brain-emulations - by rigging up reversible thalamic bridges and finding out for ourselves. (cf. http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2014/03/13/the-hogan-sisters-how-conjoined-twins-share-body-and-mind/)
Testing for consciousness in behaviourally intelligent systems like Eugene Goostman's successor will be harder. Either way, some of us predict that classicality is the mark of the zombie. Pace Church-Turing, not all of us are convinced the digital computers we program will ever support AGI. Zombies are not well equipped for a career in experimental psychopharmacology.
How might we behave to other sentient beings if a technology of reversible cross-species thalamic bridges ever becomes routine? Presumably, selfishness won't simply disappear. After all, we sometimes behave irrationally in ways that harm our future selves ["Why did I drink so much last night when I knew that I'd get a nasty hangover this morning?"] But we do tend to recognise that such behaviour is irrational and self-defeating. Likewise, access to the first-person states of sentient beings from other ethnic groups and species - and to cyborgs? - may make universal friendliness seem more like rational self-interest and less like traditional morality.
Will post-human superintelligence be asocial or hyper-social?
("Scientists Achieve Direct Brain-To-Brain Communication Between Humans")
It's not a coincidence that low-AQ folk conceive of posthuman superintelligence as hypersocial and super-empathetic whereas high-AQ folk imagine a (perhaps) unfriendly singleton AGI. Transcending the limitations of one's own cognitive style isn't easy.
* * *
As classical digital computers outperform humans in seemingly ever more fields, will they one day become sentient? Why? How? David [Chalmers] is one of the very few philosophers who has worked on both posthuman superintelligence and the phenomenal binding/combination problem:
- just not (to my knowledge) in conjunction. IMO, the two are intimately connected. What, if any, are the functional-computational advantages of what Kant called "the transcendental unity of apperception", i.e. "global" phenomenal binding or the synchronic unity of the self, and "local" binding, the combination of supposedly distributively processed phenomenal features into unitary perceptual objects? How could an ultra-intelligent but nonsentient digital computer investigate the nature of sentience - as do humans, whether experimentally or otherwise? The Hard Problem doesn't even count as well defined within an orthodox computationalist approach.
David famously argues for naturalistic dualism.
I reckon organic minds are quantum computers running at anything up to sextillions of quantum-coherent frames-per-second.
I guess the real answer may be something none of us has ever considered.
* * *
Felix, Francisco, Randal. Question: Do you agree with reductive physicalism? Was Rutherford right to claim "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." Or instead does the natural world support "strong" emergence? No one would dream of explaining the properties of the liver, Deep Blue, or the financial markets using only quantum field theory. Nonetheless, they all supervene on the underlying physics. We understand what a reductive explanation would entail. By contrast, a pan-continental phenomenal subject of experience would be theoretically irreducible - even in principle.
Intuitions among researchers clearly vary over whether an appropriately interconnected population of skull-bound American minds would generate such a unitary subject. But if such a unitary pan-continental phenomenal subject were generated, then its existence would be a catastrophic failure of reductive physicalism. Farwell to the unity of science.
In my view, naive intuition is correct. The USA is a zombie. It always will be.
By contrast, our conscious minds - and the waking and dreaming world-simulations they run - are equivalent to a unitary pan-continental subject of experience. If we were nothing but a pack of classical neurons, then we'd be zombies in all but name - information-processors running on classical Jamesian neuronal "mind dust". Whether Strawsonian physicalism is true, i.e. consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, or even if, more conservatively, we identify the minimal "psychon" of consciousness at the level of the neuron, the phenomenal unity of our minds is a seemingly insurmountable challenge for reductive physicalism. Phenomenal binding seems both classically forbidden AND quantum-theoretically forbidden too in the brain. Macroscopic superpositions of neuronal colour-, edge-, motion- (etc) detectors - and all the other distributed feature-processors contributing to local and global phenomenal binding - are effectively destroyed at subpicosecond time-scales that are phenomenally and computationally irrelevant. Hence David Chalmers' dualism.
I'm interested in exploring ways to save reductive physicalism.
By contrast, if the prospects of mind-uploading - and indeed the prospect of software-based phenomenal minds and unitary posthuman digital superintelligences - depend on abandoning reductive physicalism and instead invoking some sort of "strong" emergence to explain phenomenal binding, then I'm pessimistic about success.
* * *
"Weak" versus "strong" emergence? Life once seemed to resist reduction to physics. Vitalists posited a "life force" or élan vital. The triumph of molecular biology and the Modern Synthesis showed life is merely weakly emergent. In principle, we can give an account of biological cells entirely in terms of molecular biology - and thus quantum chemistry and ultimately fundamental physics - without once mentioning life, let alone a "vital force". Some reductionists hope to achieve a similar feat both with consciousness and phenomenal binding.
Randal, yes, Chalmers believes consciousness is physically irreducible. If our orthodox materialist understanding of the fundamental stuff of the world is correct, then we ought to be p-zombies, i.e. entities physically and behaviourally identical to you and me, but lacking in any first-person phenomenal properties. This isn't to say that p-zombies really are physically possible. Rather, on an orthodox materialist ontology, we've no explanation why p-zombies are not physically possible. In other words, we haven't the slightest idea how to derive the subjective properties of our minds from molecular biology and hence the underlying physics.
So is the Hard Problem of consciousness really insoluble? Must we abandon reductive physicalism? Strawsonian physicalists (cf. Galen Strawson's "Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism") deny that consciousness is either strongly or weakly emergent. They claim that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - the elusive "fire" in the equations on which physics is silent. Fields in physics are defined purely mathematically. What they are fields "of" is up for grabs. Indeed, the tiny part of the world that one actually instantiates suggests they are fields of something radically unlike matter - at least as naively understood.
So no Hard Problem? Chalmers sympathetically considers this proposal. But he finds that Strawsonian physicalism cannot explain how phenomenal binding is possible. There is a "structural mismatch" between the properties of our consciousness - both bound experiential objects and the unity of the phenomenal self - and the microstructure of the brain that neither classical nor quantum physics can resolve. In my view, Chalmers' dualism is premature.
Felix, thanks, yes I just wanted to check our background assumptions were the same - in this case, no "element of reality", as Einstein put it, should be missing from the formalism of physics. Dualists and believers in "strong" emergence contest this assumption.
* * *
Thanks Dylan! I guess my worry is that by invoking "emergence" to explain - or rather not to explain - phenomenal binding, Phil Goff is undercutting the rationale for a pan-experientialist Strawsonian physicalism in the first place, i.e. the world cannot support any kind of strong ontological emergence. My other worry - but also perhaps the seed of a solution to the binding problem - is that Goff implicitly treats the world's fundamental states as though they were classical lego pieces / psychic pixels of mind-dust in need of bolting together. Indeed, this is probably how we imagine the connectome of the central nervous system. But if the unitary dynamics of quantum mechanics is correct, then the mind-brain supports macroscopic quantum coherence in the guise of bound phenomenal states because coherent superpositions describe individual physical states. Coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-detectors can't be interpreted as classical ensembles of states.
Most physicists and neuroscientists would reject such a story, not least because these coherent superpositions are "destroyed" [not literally, but for all practical purposes] at (intuitively) ridiculously short time-scales. But if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then experience exists not merely at (intuitively) ridiculously small distance scales, but also ridiculously short time-scales. We shouldn't imagine the mind-brain as a pack of discrete classical neurons/mind dust at such temporal resolutions (any more than atoms are discrete classical lego pieces), but instead as a single bound quantum object whose preferred states include the bound macroscopic objects of everyday experience.
[I'm sounding as though I'm confident this conjecture will be empirically vindicated. Instead, I should probably just say that if it's false, then I don't see how monistic physicalism and the unity of science can be saved.]
* * *
But if it's digital, it won't be a perfect copy:
("First digital animal will be perfect copy of real worm")
* * *
Most people won't entertain the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical because sub-atomic scales of experience are intuitively just too small to support consciousness. But the violence to our intuitions is worse. If the intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential, then consciousness occurs at intuitively ludicrously short time-scales too: picoseconds, femtoseconds, attoseconds and less. However, this very ludicrousness also promises a solution the binding problem - and to the ostensible structural mismatch between the phenomenology of our minds and the microstructure of the mind/brainy that drives David away from a monistic physicalist idealism to dualism. For unless the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the mind-brain - an unlikely prospect - then successive quantum coherent neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors must occur in the CNS at sufficiently fine-grained time-scales: both local and global phenomenal binding in some guise or other is actually inescapable. All that's in question is whether this phenomenal binding is bizarre "psychotic" binding or instead the familiar macroscopic phenomenal objects of everyday perceptual experience.
Best of all, this conjecture is empirically testable. Assuming that next-generation interferometry can detect the signature of such neuronal superpositions, then the telltale quantum interference effects detected should robustly implicate all and only the neurons that classical neuroscience says synchronously fire whenever one experiences a bound phenomenal object - a perfect structural match between the formal and phenomenal properties of mind.
Taken in isolation, neither the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical nor macroscopic quantum coherence in the form of neuronal superpositions explain why we're not zombies. But in conjunction, they yield a falsifiable prediction about the mind-brain - which if vindicated explains why we're not zombies and closes the Explanatory Gap.
If on the other hand, no such neuronal superpositions are detected, or if they are detected but implicate psychotic neuronal "noise" irrelevant to the bound experiential objects that a subject reports, then I don't see how reductive physicalism can be saved.
* * *
("Seven Mind-Bending Mysteries That Neuroscientists Are On The Verge Of Solving")
And yet..orthodox materialist neuroscience has not the slightest idea why we aren't zombies. Or of how a bunch of neurons are capable of classically impossible phenomenal binding. Or an explanation of any of the myriad textures of consciousness that exhaust our conception of the world. Like biology before Darwin's theory of evolution, let alone the Modern Synthesis, we're missing something vital...
[on mathematics as patterns of qualia]
"Mathematics is about patterns of qualia"? Just to amplify Andres' quote. If - and it's a huge if - consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - then the solutions to the equations that exhaustively describe our world (i.e. relativistic quantum field theory or its successor) yield the values of qualia. The difference between conscious organic minds and insentient aggregates - e.g. rocks, mountains, classical computers - is phenomenal binding.
(cf. http://www.physicalism.com for a testable conjecture on how the binding problem may be solved.)
How can maths "really" be about patterns of qualia? For a start, most mathematicians aren't ultrafinitists!
Well, perhaps see:
* * *
Adriano, stimulation of individual neurons in an awake brain with microelectrodes may elicit a fleeting speckle of colour, or a tiny hiss, or a micro-pinprick of pain. If - and it's a huge if - consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then we must imagine the existence of even more faint and fleeting experiences at Nature's most fundamental level: presumably the world's underlying quantum fields. Yet just as 320 million skull-bound Americans synchronously undergoing a pinprick doesn't add up to an experience of agony - even if the skull-bound American minds communicate with each other about the experience - there's an analogous challenge with neurons. If membrane-bound neurons are effectively classical objects, why do we sometime experience agony rather than instantiate 10,000 discrete synchronous neuronal micro-pains?
If we want to save reductive physicalism, then one conjecture might run as follows. Most of us balk at the idea that consciousness could be fundamental in Nature because, intuitively, the scale of the hypothetical fundamental "psychons" of consciousness is simply too small: a conscious neuron, maybe; but conscious molecules, atoms, superstrings/branes? The imagination boggles! Actually, the conjecture is weirder still. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then fleeting neuronal superpositions (cf. Schrödinger's cat) must instantiate states of consciousness too, i.e. the world is experiential not just at ludicrously small distance scales but over ludicrously short time-scales as well. At sub-picosecond time-scales, we can't treat neurons and the mind-brain as well-defined classical objects. So what's it like to instantiate a sequence of fleeting superpositions of neuronal micro-pains - where the micro-pains have lost their individual neuronal identity and are bound into a single agonising (?) quantum coherent state?
I guess a standard answer to the question would be: it's not like anything at all to instantiate such a sequence of neuronal superpositions. Neuronal macro-superpositions are "destroyed" [i.e. lost to the extra-neuronal environment via thermally-induced decoherence in ways that are irreversible for all practical purposes] at sub-picosecond intervals. Contrast our normal textbook neuroscience assumption that bound states of consciousness "emerge" - somehow - via classical neuronal firings at millisecond time-scales, not picoseconds or less.
Maybe so. But this "emergentist" non-explanation is not a viable reply if we take seriously the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Such "strong" emergence is also inconsistent with reductive physicalism and the unity of science.
Fortunately, the question will be settled by experimental scientists, not philosophers. Naively, the idea that consciousness is fundamental in Nature is an untestable metaphysical speculation. But if these primordial phenomenal states are non-classically "bound" in the mind-brain, then their physical signature will be found when we can probe the time-scales at which neuronal macro-superpositions occur. In other words, in conjunction these two conjectures yield a novel and experimentally testable prediction - albeit a prediction that most researchers will find far-fetched.
Is panpsychism a form of dualism? Dylan, there are certainly forms of panpsychism that amount to property dualism, i.e. experience in its most primitive form is "attached", in some poorly understood sense, to physical properties as normally understood. There is also Russellian monism, according to which the basic stuff of the world is neither intrinsically experiential nor intrinsically material (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutral_monism) But the view I was exploring above is the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the elusive "fire" in the equations of quantum field theory [or its successor] that exhaustively describe the world. This conjecture is wildly counterintuitive; but it is consistent with our own experience of the tiny part of reality each of us instantiates. However, if reductive physicalism is to be saved, we still need to solve the binding problem.
* * *
Andres, suggestion: it would be good to organise a workshop on the binding problem - both "local" and "global" phenomenal binding, to use Revonsuo's useful distinction - and the prospects of non-biological (super)intelligence. David Chalmers is the only philosopher I know who has written about both topics in depth. But Chalmers' exploration of the binding problem is directed at pan-experientialist Strawsonian physicalism, not the (un)likelihood of a nonbiological Intelligence Explosion. David Chalmers would of course be amenable to dualist proposals. But a physicalist monism still strikes me as most promising - and critically, it's testable. When we can probe the CNS at the sub-picosecond temporal resolutions at which neuronal superpositions must occur (assuming the unitary dynamics of QM), are we going to find computationally meaningless "noise"? Or the signature of bound phenomenal objects and a fleetingly unitary experiential self? I say "testable"; but thinking of the technical challenges involved makes my head hurt. (cf. Maximilian A. Schlosshauer's "Decoherence: and the Quantum-To-Classical Transition":
* * *
Michael, you're arguing that pleasure and pain aren't specific experiences. And it's true that evolution has "encephalised" our emotions. Projections from the limbic system "paint" hedonic tone on our neocortical representations in all sorts of fitness-enhancing ways. But if one is suffering from a splitting headache, say, or chronic neuropathic pain, can one make sense of the idea that these aren't experiences? And the normative aspect of phenomenal agony is built into its very nature. Of course, there's a long way to go from agony-is-bad-for-me to HI. But combined with a scientific "view-from-nowhere", i.e. I'm not special or privileged in any way, then I think it can be shown that the abolitionist project follows - both in terms of morality and decision-theoretic rationality.
* * *
Is classicality all in the mind?
("Quantum weirdness is everywhere in life" – Johnjoe McFadden)
Emily, yes, I've explored the Orch-OR approach. The problem with "dynamical collapse" theories of QM is that we simply don't see any evidence that the unitary evolution of the wavefunction breaks down in the human brain. I assume instead that the unitary dynamics holds. Of course, to claim that phenomenal binding is explained by quantum coherent superpositions of the relevant neuronal feature-detectors sounds absurd because these macro-superpositions are presumably "destroyed" [lost to the extra-neural environment in ways that are thermodynamically irreversible for all practical purposes] at sub-picosecond time-scales. But I predict that next-generation interferometry will detect the physical signature of the bound phenomenal objects of our everyday world-simulations in the CNS - and thereby confound the "argument from structural mismatch" that pushes David Chalmers towards dualism.
* * *
Classical physics is a false theory of the world - both its formalism and its ontology. At best, classical physics can be treated as akin to the quantum mechanics of large systems. The world is described by a single master equation. Sentient subjects of experience are among its solutions. No, this isn't very helpful - one reason this Wall remains, for the most part, an equation-free zone. :-)
* * *
Other things being equal, two implausible hypotheses are less desirable than one. But taken in isolation, neither Strawsonian physicalism nor sub-picosecond quantum coherent neuronal superpositions in the CNS explain why we're not zombies. Only their conjunction yields phenomenal binding and unitary experiential subjects. The first step experimentally is to move beyond fullerenes and create neuronal superpositions ("Schrödinger's cat states") in vitro. By itself, their creation won't vindicate quantum mind. For their fleeting existence is predicted by "no collapse" theories of QM in sticks and stones as well as neurons. But their existence is a precondition for the solution to why we're not zombies that I explore.
The ramifications? Peter, well, if next-generation interferometry really does deliver the results I anticipate, then the implications would be quite radical: no digital sentience, no "mind uploading", no imminent Intelligence Explosion, a Kuhnian-style paradigm-shift in our conception of the physical, and the wry pleasure of hearing folk say they'd always known binding wasn't a classical phenomenon anyway. More plausibly, I should be contemplating what to do if I'm left with (vegan) egg on my face.
* * *
[on ontic structural realism]
Dario, yes, ontic structural realism is opposed to the view that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical: the "fire" in the equations. I'm not clear how ontic structural realism proposes to explain phenomenal mind. Aren't our different flavours of consciousness intrinsic properties of the world? If so, couldn't their values ultimately be "read off" from the solutions to the fundamental field-theoretic equations? In the meantime, a modest epistemic structural realism in physics strikes me as more defensible than its brash ontic cousin. ...I may have misunderstood which version of structural realism you hold. [I read James Ladyman's defence "Everything Must go" awhile ago: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0199276196/] The very strongest version of ontic structural realism denies even the existence of intrinsic properties; all that exists are relations without relata. But if I know anything at all, then I know the intrinsic "raw feels" of consciousness. My working assumption is that consciousness is physical, ergo (some) physical properties are intrinsic.
("An integration of integrated information theory with fundamental physics")
There is an important distinction between the author's claim that it is "unlikely that any complex consciousness could exist in any field other than the electromagnetic field" and the claim that only the electromagnetic field supports consciousness. The former claim is consistent with the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical; the latter claim involves some sort of "strong" emergence of the experiential from the non-experiential.
* * *
Kant's belief that the noumenal essence of the world - the elusive "fire" in the equations - lies forever beyond our grasp is intuitively appealing. On this story, all one can ever know are the phenomena of one's mind and the relational-structural account of the mind-independent world delivered by mathematical physics. (cf. the "ontic structural realism" of 'Everything Must Go':
But Schopenhauer turns Kant on his head. Introspective mind discloses one part of the world as it is in itself and not at one remove, so to speak. The phenomenal "fire" in the field-theoretic equations of physics is utterly different from our naive materialist intuitions.
Naturally, we must tread carefully here. Wilfred Sellars warns of the "Myth of the Given", i.e. the naive empiricist notion that we have access to some sort of realm of pure experience uncontaminated by theory. That said, I think we can take Schopenhauer a step further. Consider what Kant calls the "transcendental unity of apperception", better known today as the synchronic unity of the self. What does such "global" phenomenal binding tell us about us whether our minds are classical or quantum computers?
If you're a perceptual direct realist who thinks of your mind as essentially a logico-linguistic processor, then the notion that human minds are akin to slow, inefficient classical computers is seductive. Perhaps poor old organic minds will soon be superseded by IJ Good/MIRI/Bostrom-style digital superintelligence! But if you conceive of your phenomenal world-simulation as an aspect of your own mind-brain - a part of the intrinsic "fire" in the equations - then you realise that you're not a classical information processor. Except perhaps in a dreamless sleep, you're not an aggregate of classical Jamesian "mind dust".
Any hard-nosed neuroscientist or computer-major skimming this comment is unlikely to be impressed by such armchair philosophising. But if the phenomenal binding underlying your unitary phenomenal mind is a manifestation of macroscopic quantum coherence, then a novel and experimentally falsifiable prediction straightforwardly follows. The empirical prediction is that next-generation interferometry will detect the sub-picosecond signature of quantum coherent neuronal superpositions in the mind-brain in the guise of non-classical interference effects (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/0909.1469v3.pdf) AND these indirectly detected quantum coherent neuronal superpositions will robustly - with vanishingly rare exceptions - implicate all and only the synchronously firing feature-mediating neurons that orthodox neuroscience reveals are activated when individual phenomenally bound objects are perceived by the experimental subject.
And if either prediction is empirically falsified?
Well, if phenomenal binding is neither a classical nor quantum phenomenon, then I fear descent into the abyss of Chalmersian dualism:
Farewell to the unity of science.
* * *
I think a credible scientific case can be made for idealism. Physics gives an exhaustive description of the relational-structural properties of the world. Consciousness discloses the intrinsic properties of the world: the "fire" in the equations. The solutions to the master equation of physics yield the different values of consciousness. However....
Physicalistic idealism and theism are distinct conjectures. I still don't see any evidence for theism - though I'm not dogmatic here. Reality baffles me.
BTW, the complete text of Ladyman and Ross' unusually scientifically literate defence of "ontic structural realism" is online:
Ontic structural realism is the thesis defended by your equally physics-literate friend Dario.
IMO, the thesis that the world has no intrinsic properties founders on the existence of our countless different textures of consciousness. The values of these intrinsic textures of consciousness may be fixed by the relations on which they supervene. But I can't make any sense of the notion that such intrinsic properties don't exist. Hence my inclination to physicalistic idealism.
But are these different textures of consciousness just glorified "tickles"?
Or the signature of some immanent superbeing - or perhaps a transcendent Simulator?
Sadly, I'm still an atheist-leaning agnostic.
* * *
How to build a smart zombie?
("Building Better Minds")
Peter, I admire Ben's work; I've debated with him on air. Like me, Ben takes seriously Strawsonian physicalism, i.e. experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Where we differ is over whether Strawsonian physicalism plus synchronously firing classical neurons can explain phenomenal binding - and hence account for the fact that we're not mindless zombies. Full-spectrum superintelligences will not have the architecture of a digital computer - or for that matter a purely classically parallel connectionist system. Better, this "philosophical"-sounding claim will be empirically testable with advances in interferometry. The conjecture that phenomenal binding is underpinned by successive neuronal superpositions of feature-processors will stand or fall by experiment - though I believe one vital piece of evidence lies under our virtual noses.
[Recall the binding problem. "Exactly the same point can be made with skull-bound American minds as with membrane-bound classical neurons. Imagine that the population of the USA agree to participate in an experiment - with ultrafast reciprocal electromagnetic communication replacing chemical synapses. Implement any computation you choose. Perhaps consider a whole bunch of skull-bound American minds each experiencing a musical note. Is the upshot a pan-continental musical symphony enjoyed by a unitary subject of experience? If so, why, how? Or consider millions of individual classical skull-bound Americans minds each experiencing a pinprick. Does a pan-continental subject of experience undergo agony if skull-bound American minds each synchronously send a signal telling each other that they are undergoing a pinprick? Likewise, imagine vast numbers of distributed skull-bound feature-processors each undergoing an edge-experience, colour experience, shape-detection experience, motion-detection experience and so forth and reciprocally signalling the experience as they do so. Does a pan-continental subject of experience witness an ongoing football match? Or is the population of the USA still a zombie?"]
Mystery-mongering? The mystery arises if we assume Strawsonian physicalism is false and/or neurons are essentially classical. If either claim is true, then we should be zombies. And zombies are not going to crack the enigma of consciousness.
* * *
No justification exists (yet!) for modifying the unitary dynamics of QM. For a framework for deriving the Born Rule within Everett, perhaps see the guy who pioneered the decoherence program Wojciech Zurek:
Philosophically speaking, I fear unmodified QM is true because Everett is the only interpretation consistent with a zero ontology: the only explanation-space I know of for an explanation of Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? [Reality has net zero information = all possible self-consistent descriptions = Everett's multiverse??]
Also, if the superposition principle breaks down in the mind-brain, as Adrian Kent conjectures, then I've no idea how to explain phenomenal binding without giving up on reductive physicalism.
Alas creating - and demonstrating via fiendishly tricky interferometry - in vitro neuronal superpositions is a lot harder than creating double slit-type interferences of fullerenes.
[on nostalgia for the future]
Nostalgic for the future?
Could anyone who imagines the future of life be nostalgic?
[on the perfect match]
Physically fit, ambitious, perceptive, passionate, optimistic, funny, spontaneous, thoughtful, affectionate, outgoing guy seeks girl.
("How to get a date: the words that attract the opposite sex online. Women should describe themselves as "sweet" while men would do well to emphasis their physical fitness and passion")
[on all-female governance]
("Women-Only Leadership. Would it prevent war?")
Mike, the argument is not that women are nicer than men, despite scoring higher on the personality dimension of agreeableness. Rather, the claim is that Nature "designed" men to be hunters and warriors. History does not record a single instance of women banding together to wage territorial wars of aggression. Chimpanzees don't have WMD; humans do. Male humans killed around 100 million of their conspecifics last century. This century's death-count will most likely be higher. Whether electing all-female leadership would reduce this tally is something will probably never know.
* * *
Isaiah, I confess I do sometimes wish Ayn Rand's drug of choice had been MDMA ("Ecstasy") rather than amphetamines. But either way, a commitment to phasing out the biology of suffering is consistent with a diverse array of political ideologies - including Objectivism.
[on evil simulators]
Does the existence of evil prove we're not living in a simulation? Nicolas, 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.
Do you resemble a modern masterpiece or a Jackson Pollock?
("Transhumanist Art Will Help Guide People to Becoming Masterpieces")
Enhancement technologies promise the creation of superhuman beauty. Tradition says beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Less poetically, neuroscience suggests that beauty lies in activation of the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In principle, intelligent agents can use biotechnology to amplify and enrich the molecular signature of aesthetic appreciation beyond the bounds of normal human experience. Artistic creations and the everyday world alike can look sublime.
* * *
Some weapons should be banned under the Geneva convention:
(Modern Art was CIA weapon")
Some masterpieces are heavily disguised:
("This Missing $3.7 Million Painting May Have Gotten Thrown Out In The Trash")
To be honest, a lot of art passes over my head. “I have been told that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” said Mark Twain. Likewise, perhaps most modern art isn't as unsightly as it looks. Maybe!
[on game theory]
Andres, IMO the solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma is to abandon the false metaphysical assumptions on which it is based. These false metaphysical assumptions are a recipe for decision-theoretic irrationality. Thus if A and B are a pair of hyper-empathetic mirror-touch synaesthetes - or rather a full-spectrum cognitive generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia - or a pair of Open Individualists (etc), then as rational agents, they will both hold their peace. Both feel each other's pains as if they were one's own; and act accordingly - leading to a globally optimal outcome if we generalise. Of course, for evolutionary reasons few of us are hyper-empathetic mirror-touch synaesthetes or their cognitive equivalent. But the problem with individualistic accounts of decision-theoretic rationality is that they confuse this epistemological limitation with a metaphysical truth. Thus we may predict that a high-tech era of naturalised telepathy / reversible mind-melding (etc) will lead to a revolution in the canons of decision-theoretic rationality as well. Given this knowledge, we don't need to wait to become more rational...
Now off to the Oxfam shop.
Caapr, a good question. The scenario you've described would be a recipe for global veganism - and an antispeciesist revolution. Of course, unless open individualism (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_individualism) is true, we won't have the lived first-person experience that would allow such informed trade-offs. Most humans will never know what it is like, for example, to be so desperate that we try and mutilate ourselves - as do factory-farmed nonhumans unless declawed, debeaked, castrated (etc).The nice taste of bacon or whatever looms larger in our minds. But why should a mere epistemological limitation have such terrible implications for the way we treat each other?
* * *
"From the point of view of the universe"? Imagine if instead of our assuming enduring metaphysical egos, all the world's here-and-nows are assigned names and numbers. Why is it rational (as distinct from, maybe, moral), for say, DP-100456 in Year 2015 to take into account the interests and preferences of DP-200976 in Year 2045? It's not as though any one here-and-now is really about, or belongs to, or is owned by, any other here-and-now. Quite possibly DP-100456 can more vividly imagine my namesake in Year 2045 than your namesake. But why should this epistemological limitation have any bearing on how it's rational to behave? No, the universe doesn't literally have a unitary point if view, any more than a notional enduring metaphysical ego has a unitary point of view. Yet if we assume, as physics suggests, that they are all ontologically on a par, then it's rational when deciding how to act to weigh them accordingly.
[on abolitionist bioethics beyond the Anglosphere]
("Entrevista com o filósofo David Pearce. Ele defende um projeto abolicionista que envolve o fim da predação, obtido através da ecoengenharia.")
Thank you Fay and Farhan. I feel the horrors of Darwinian life need a more graphic representation than my wild and untamed hair. David, yes, it's good that abolitionist bioethics is spreading beyond the Anglosphere. But part of me is still amazed that the idea sentient beings shouldn't harm each other is controversial.
[on social networks and dual posting]
DP Social Network Posts
Wider lessons? IMO anyone who uses FB or any other social network should dual-post to their own dedicated website - on a domain registered in their own name that they wholly control ("Only the paranoid survive" - Andy Grove)
("Highly intelligent and successful people who hold weird beliefs")
I guess my conjectures on Planck-scale consciousness and quantum mind lie outside the scientific mainstream; but as a physicalist. I also think of myself as a boring pillar of orthodoxy. However, my real sympathies lie with J.B.S. Haldane: "Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose".
("X – teched creatures billions of years old")
Dialetheist Graham Priest:
[on immersive VR]
Kim, I agree. I guess the question is whether we'll eventually all spend our lives in immersive VR. Is this one possible explanation of the Fermi Paradox?
David Pearce /Future Medicine
Dean, yes, immersive multi-modal VR promises "supernormal" stimuli: a world more real, more vivid, and more compelling than anything in basement reality. And no need for pain either! Could this be the future? I think we need to consider the nature of selection pressure. Imagine a world of ubiquitous VR. With most people wired in to the Matrix, there will presumably be intense selection pressure in favour of "refusniks" - primitive folk who opt to stay and raise kids in basement reality rather than virtual kids in VR. Ultimate power still lies in the basement. Indeed, any future scenario at all needs to consider the nature of selection pressure. Compare scenarios where wireheading or any other form of uniform bliss become freely available to all.
That said, I still think immersive VR is potentially life-transforming: I hope to live there myself one day when I don't feel I can do any more useful work. What immersive VR won't do, on its own, is shift the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range, or our genetically-constrained hedonic set-points. So even if we spend much or all of our lives in designer paradises, that won't be enough. In order to appreciate paradise fully, we'll still need to edit our ugly genetic source code and engineer life animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss.
How closely does your online persona resemble its author?
("Lying on Facebook profiles can implant false memories, experts warn. A fifth of young people admit their online profile bears little resemblance to reality")
[on quantum ethics]
Suffering in the Multiverse
Thanks Russell. IMO we can't rationally hope to be effective altruists unless we have an adequate account of the nature of Reality. Unfortunately, the essay above doesn't consider the ethical ramifications of Everett plus the two-state vector formalism for the ultimate sphere of responsibility of moral agents. An update is on the To Do list.
[If asked, I normally describe myself as an "ineffective altruist" - which is probably accurate. But perhaps even that verdict is too self-flattering: "Il n'y a guère d'homme assez habile pour connaître tout le mal qu'il fait." ("Hardly any man is clever enough to know all the evil he does." - La Rochefoucauld]
... "effective altruism" is such a strong brand there's a danger it might be hijacked. Torquemada probably conceived himself as an effective altruist, if not in so many words, rescuing lost souls from an eternity of torment in Hell....
The relief of suffering versus existential risk? The existence of suffering in the modern world is itself a form of existential risk. Benatarians, depressives, anti-natalists and efilists, negative utilitarians, hypothetical button-pressers (etc) may not seem a very serious x-risk today. Whether this judgement will hold later this century is unclear.
[on Nietzsche and transhumanism]
'If you can spell Nietzsche without Google, you deserve a cookie.'
Was Nietzsche A Transhumanist?
Many thanks Adam! It's a vulgar misunderstanding of Nietzsche to regard him as some sort of proto-Nazi. Nietzsche despised anti-Semitism for a start. But Nietzsche's conception of a what becoming a "superman" entails owes more to the African savannah than a transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience.
Technologies of Paradise Engineering
Paradise engineering needs an avatar that more readily evokes the utopian vision it advocates.
Adam, recall Nietzsche had profound contempt for the weak, the meek and for women. He despised pity (a source of weakness) and democracy. Perhaps Nietzsche appeals most to men who fancy themselves as his Übermenschen, and least to temperamental rabbits. In my view, the meaning of life is given by the pleasure-pain axis. Would life have any meaning without it? Alas on a Nietzschean ethic, the blessings of its higher reaches will be enjoyed entirely by supermen, whereas transhumanists promote (I hope) the well-being of all sentience.
Meaning and the Death of God? The happier one feels, the more meaningful life seems. Compare how euphoric hypomania and mania are associated with a heightened sense of meaning, purpose and significance. Of course, mania is potentially disastrous for everyone. But the positive correlation between happiness and "meaningfulness" is one reason for conjecturing that posthumans won't just be orders of magnitude happier than humans. Posthuman life will seem orders of magnitude more significant too. Contrast the common charge that indefinite lifespans will be "boring". The downside of this association is that low mood is associated with a sense of emptiness and futility - which in the case of chronic depression turns into nihilistic despair.
Prediction: if we get rid of experience below "hedonic zero", the Meaning of Life will take care of itself.
Thanks Robert. http://wireheading.com/hypermotivation.html
There may (or may not) be a metaphysical Meaning Of Life. But the creation of hyper-meaningful lives is technically quite straightforward. Until this sentence, no one in the entire history of the world has ever said, "I am very happy but my life feels meaningless". Recall Lenny Bruce on taking heroin. “I'll die young, but it's like kissing God.” Or Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" just prior to an epileptic seizure "I would give my whole life for this one instant."
* * *
Loophole? Does "free will" have any place in science?
"Closing the 'free will' loophole Using distant quasars to test Bell's theorem"
I prefer Lev Vaidman's approach - essentially a combination of Everett and the two-state vector formalism:
See too the provocative if mistitled:
Are Everett's quantum mechanical many worlds and the eternally inflating multiverse one-and-the-same?
[a couple of interviews]
DP interviewed by Andrés Gómez Emilsson
Andrés is that rare creature, an empathetic mathematician, possibly in part because of the unusual pain-sensitivity of redheads:
By contrast, mathematicians who combine high IQs with high AQs often show elevated pain thresholds and hypo-sensitivity to pain - though I don't know if the strength of the correlation has ever been rigorously quantified.
Andrés before he became president of Stanford transhumanists:
DP interviewed by Beijing transhumanists:
[on transhumanism in Nevada]
Euphoriants will be served? Probably not, but there will be food:
("A Forum on Suffering and its Abolition with David Pearce")
And tomorrow: Does the future belong to digital zombies? Or full-spectrum superintelligence?
("The Future of Consciousness: a forum with David Pearce")
[on preparing for 2025]
Let's talk about it.
One of my fellow panellists will be Amon Kalkin, founder of Zero State. Zero State's conception of transhumanism differs in some respects from the original Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009); but it should be congenial to members of this group!
The Transhumanist Declaration 2.0
[on the NU capital of the world]
For reasons obscure, Basel has the world's highest density of negative utilitarians and effective altruists. What questions would you most like us to tackle?
Q and A with David Pearce and Brian Tomasik
My co-panelist, the admirable Brian Tomasik, describes himself as a "negative-leaning utilitarian":
Somehow a supremely compassionate ethic, NU, that recognises our overriding obligation to minimise suffering, has become confused with plotting Armageddon. Here I rescued from the bowels of Facebook an earlier reply to Toby Ord's charge that NU is a "devastatingly callous" ethic. But I'm not sure what's the best response.
Ruairí, I imagine you by temperament if not intellect as a positive-leaning utilitarian. And I hope in the not-too-distant future, positive utilitarians will be the only kind there'll be.
Zookeeper my co-founder of the WTA did stand-up comedy routines on the London circuit. But this hasn't stopped him writing illuminating philosophy. Likewise, the fact I happen to own a web hosting company has no bearing on the worth - or the lack of worth! - of the material I write Anyhow, despite Alex Kruel's kind suggestion, there are lots of people better qualified than me to write about the Effective Altruist movement. I was just pointing out that the article, as it stands, does not do EA - or RationalWiki - justice.
* * *
Darren, part of the awfulness of the worst forms of suffering is a sense of hopelessness, despair, an expectation it will never end - and a sense of its total meaninglessness. Thus experiencing even quite intense pain while having a baby - or notionally undergoing intense physical pain in anticipation of saving the world - isn't as bad as, for example, severe depression.
[on the London Futurists Conference]
Indeed so Dave. Perhaps the difference between a classical utilitarian and a superterrorist is a matter of perspective - and dates. In my talk, I stressed the existential and global catastrophic risks posed by the existence of suffering. But maybe it's the pleasure principle that poses the greatest long-term threat to intelligence in the cosmos.
[on a "Triple S" civilisation]
Is a "Triple S" civilisation technically or sociologically credible?
A Triple S Civilisatioon
For a less rosy view of future technologies, see:
("10 Horrifying Technologies That Should Never Be Allowed To Exist")
If paradise-engineering is technically feasible, so is hell-engineering.
What aspects of transhumanism resist compression into the three "supers"? One suggestion is the development of a superhuman capacity for empathy. It would be nice if hyper-empathy were integral to full-spectrum superintelligence ['If we could read the we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility" - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]. However, there is one school of transhumanist thought that doubts posthuman superintelligence will be "empathetic" in any sense of the term that humans would recognise.
[Hedonistic Imperative video]
The Hedonistic Imperative
On Mother Nature
Derek, immersive VR may well become widespread (I expect so). But there is a powerful argument from selection pressure against the conjecture we'll leave basement reality behind. People who spend their lives in immersive VR are not going to rear real-world children and pass on their genes...
Discerning the Will of God can be a tough challenge at the best of times. But presumably God is greater in both the depth and the scope of His benevolence than mere mortals. If mere mortals can envisage the well-being of all sentience in our forward light-cone, to suggest God is more stunted in the range of his benevolence might seem to do the Creator a disservice.
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9
David Pearce (2014)
The Abolitionist Project
Social Network Postings (2016)
Can Science Abolish Suffering? (2013)
Hedonistic Imperative Facebook Group Posts