JANUARY - DECEMBER 2015[on the history of melancholy]
A nice animation - especially the section on paradise engineering! - but the comments section suggests we have a way to go:
"A brief history of melancholy"
Yes, painful reading. Of course, rationalisation can sometimes take the edge off life's miseries. The problem comes when the rationalisations become an obstacle to getting rid of the miseries. Just as fighting global warming needs a Hundred Year Plan - and short-term fixes - so does low mood. Over the next 100 years, around 100,000,000 (sic) depressive people world-wide will take their own lives. This terrible self-immolation is just the tip of an iceberg of misery.
Nick, I could tell you my vision of paradise. But the beauty of radical hedonic recalibration is that life animated by biologically driven gradients of bliss doesn't entail buying into anyone else's conception of the good life. Rather, it's a sustainable enrichment of your own.
MassDynamic, yes, natural selection is "reliable" in the sense it helps our genes leave more copies of themselves. Jealousy, anxiety, depression and other nasty states of mind were often fitness-enhancing in the ancestral environment of adaptation. But our genetic make-up causes immense suffering. In future, we'll be able to rewrite our genetic source code to serve the interests of sentient beings rather than self-replicating DNA. Let's make the creation of biohappiness an engineering discipline...
("The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness")
Let's amplify and enrich the right precuneus.
* * *
Phasing out the biology of low mood is different from reducing contrast or emotional variety. If, simplistically, our current hedonic range stretches from -10 to zero to +10, assume that tomorrow's biotechnology allows the creation of lower and upper bounds of hedonic tone stretching from -100 to hedonic zero to +100, with an average hedonic set-point an adjustable parameter too. What hedonic range and hedonic set-point would you choose for yourself – and your future children?
People give different responses to this hypothetical - and of course, some people reply that we shouldn't presume to tamper with the wisdom of Mother Nature or Divine Providence at all. But the critical point ethically, I'd argue, is that when the biology of suffering becomes optional, nobody should be forced to suffer involuntarily.
* * *
(Un)happiness and the meaning of life might seem separate questions. Yet as we become happier, life tends to become more meaningful. This increasing sense of meaning can shade - in cases of manic euphoria - to intense feelings of purpose and significance. Conversely, low mood is associated with a sense of emptiness and a loss of meaning, shading into the nihilistic feelings of severe depression. True, we sometimes speak of "empty hedonism". But if posthuman life is really animated by gradients of bliss, then most likely such life will be hyper-charged with significance.
Or in fewer words, take care of happiness, and the meaning of life will take care of itself.
The End of Suffering?
("David Pearce on abolishing suffering")
Many thanks, yes, we should all support SENS – and indeed ALCOR: millions of older people otherwise aren't going to make it. IMO, cryonics should be opt-out rather than opt-in. However, there is another problem that is much less discussed in the transhumanist community. For millions of depressive people in the world today, the problem isn't that life's too short but rather it's too long. Time hangs heavy. We need to defeat low mood and ageing alike.
Are you worth preserving?
"If KrioRus is the Lada of the cryonics world, Arizona’s Alcor is the Mercedes-Benz...."
("Inside the weird world of cryonics")
* * *
CRISPR-based "gene drives" are a game-changer. Used wisely, gene drives could rapidly, cheaply and effectively reduce the burden of suffering across the vertebrate lineage and beyond...
"Gene drives" and free-living animal suffering
How far? Eddie, IMO we should work our way across the entire phylogenetic tree, eliminating the molecular signature of suffering wherever it found. That said, we must also prioritise. Large-brained long-lived vertebrates intuitively come first, ethically speaking - they suffer more. However, gene drives turn this intuitive chronological sequence on its head. In principle, a modestly talented ethical biohacker using molecular tools readily available on eBay for under $10K could "fix" the default level of suffering for an entire species of small fast-reproducing vertebrate within the time-frame of two or three decades and default level of suffering of a fast (sexually) reproducing species of insect or marine invertebrate within two or three years. Helping elephants in the same way would take two or three centuries. Much wiser and more prudent than primate initiative IMO would be compassionate stewardship of ecosystems under UN auspices; I'm just talking about what's technically feasible.
More on the evolutionarily ancient pain-modulating SCN9A gene here:
("Differential Evolution of Voltage-Gated Sodium Channels in Tetrapods and Teleost Fishes")
How could we make life on Earth a utopia?
I hope the biology of suffering can be medicalised. Utopia may be forever beyond our grasp, but the molecular signature of unpleasant experience should be eradicable - with time. See too:
Social primates have a multitude of conflicting and irreconcilable prejudices. Utopia for some of us would be dystopia for others. MIRI sometimes talk about Coherent Extrapolated Volition (cf. https://intelligence.org/files/CEV.pdf). Yet beyond the pleasure principle, I've never really found CEV intelligible, let alone formalisable. To use a trivial (for me!) example, if most football supporters passionately wish their team to win the cup, most will necessarily be disappointed. Such an example could be multiplied effectively without limit - in politics, religion, personal life, you name it. Of course, I might want to say that caring about e.g. grown men kicking a ball around a field is absurd. But this is a case of imposing my judgements of (dis)value on others.
One reason for pressing radical hedonic enrichment / recalibration is that - with complications - it’s preference-neutral. Everyone’s subjective quality of life can be hugely enriched without asking you to compromise your values, preferences and conception of the good life in favour of mine - or anyone else’s: in a game-theoretic sense, it's true win-win. No, hedonic enrichment is not utopia: countless religious, social, political and – yes - football issues are left unresolved. Yet a long-term strategy of getting rid of the biology of (involuntary) suffering would seem a decent springboard for the future.
I mentioned complications. Here is one. Some people may be inherently opposed to deliberate hedonic set-point recalibration, just as they’d be opposed to setting the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range. And of course, hedonic enrichment and recalibration is a medium-to-long term strategy; preimplantation genetic screening is still in its infancy, and the CRISPR/Cas-9 technology revolution (cf. The Gene Hackers) is only a few years old. How many people today could even name genes/allelic combinations implicated in high/low hedonic set-points? In addition, it would be naïve to suppose that a globally hyperthymic civilisation would really perpetuate an approximation of the malaise-ridden preferences and values of its Darwinian predecessor. But if we want a slogan, then the World Health Organisation (WHO) commitment to good health for everyone is apt: health is “a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO).
René, yes, whereas (in principle) all football team (etc) supporters can be happy – though some information-sensitively happier than others – a group that values inflicting suffering on others wouldn’t be amenable to the kind of hyperthymic civilisation I explore. I guess my hope is that phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering will eventually become rather like, e.g. the goal of phasing out malaria, a policy objective so taken for granted that it doesn’t need to be argued. Diversification? Yes, in one sense; in other areas, global homogenisation: the evidence points both ways. Either way, good health for all – including psychological superhealth – is consistent with lifestyle diversification in innumerable other spheres. To abolish suffering or merely its inevitability? The latter, though I (tentatively) predict the former will follow in its wake. There isn’t a tribal subculture that values toothaches or migraines. But always remembering cumbersomely to write out “involuntary suffering” rather than “suffering” spikes many guns.
* * *
Hedonic set-points can't "naturally" be raised; but they can be lowered by chronic uncontrollable stress. Even by human standards this robo-torturer is sinister...
("Robot rat bullies real rats into depression… for science! | ExtremeTech")
* * * Two separate questions here. First, do we want to reduce the burden of suffering in Nature? Second, if "yes", how can we do so most cheaply, effectively and sustainably while minimizing the risk of unforeseen side-effects? Intuitively "compassionate" interventions are likely to make the problem of suffering even worse. For example, feed lots of starving herbivores in winter and the outcome will be a population explosion next spring followed by ecological collapse. The result: more misery.
By contrast, intelligent use of cross-species immunocontraception and "gene drives" could dramatically reduce the level of suffering in all species of sexually reproducing organisms over naively impossibly short time-frames. "Fixing" a benign version of the pain-modulating SCN9A gene in a entire free-living non-human animal population of sexually reproducing organisms would cost around $10,000 per species at today's prices. No doubt species essentialists will balk at the prospect. Yet would we seriously claim with a straight face that the 0.1% of humans, for example, with the lowest pain-sensitivity aren't "truly" human?
Of course, lots of other factors would need to be weighed before going ahead. For example, focusing on the example discussed here
organisms with a "high pain" allele of SCN9A tend to have a sharper sense of smell; "low pain" variants of SCN9A are associated with duller olfaction. And so forth.
But ultimately these are details.
As intelligent moral agents, do we want a happy biosphere or not? * * *
Do you tell someone with a raging toothache there are more important things in life than toothaches?
("Ending Suffering is the Most Important Cause")
* * *
Wealth can't cheat the hedonic treadmill - though like most folk, I'd like to give it a go. Species-wide biological-genetic intervention is the only long-term solution. But building a globally hyperthymic civilisation puts the Apollo Project in the shade.
http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/02/genome-editing-how-to-modify-genetic-faults-and-the-human-germline * * *
Can humans become smarter and happier?
("No room to think: Depressive thoughts may have a negative effect on working memory")
Hit the gym or sleep on it? What's the best when to enhance memory recall?
But beware getting a good night's sleep after a bad day...
Don't think, be happy?
("Is neuroticism fueled by overthinking?")
An orbitofrontal cortex? I need one...
("Feeling anxious? Check your orbitofrontal cortex and cultivate your optimism")
* * *
The Hedonistic Imperative
Jord, another clue is that non-social animals don't seem to get depressed - though of course they still suffer in other ways. Part of the problem in a sexually reproducing species like humans is that all children born today are unique genetic experiments. We can't be sure of the outcome our interventions or non-interventions. At most, prospective parents can load the genetic dice in their children's favour. Preimplantation genetic screening is a more "conservative" option than the true genetic engineering feasible later this century and beyond. But all the reproductive options are fraught with pitfalls - both ethical and technical.
* * *
Famous? Not exactly Adam. Britannica thinks DP is an "American philosopher":
(my Bronx accent?)
Spot the difference?
Alas selling eugenics to a German audience takes finesse.
I have just ordered a testing kit:
When will recursively self-improving organic robots start seriously editing their own source code?
* * *
A thoughtful critique from a self-effacing academic:
A critique of the abolitionist project
* * *
Time for an image makeover?
("Picture Perfect: An Online Avatar Reveals Deep Truths About A Person's Personality")
"The weirder you're going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse, too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person.”
For some people, it's obvious that suffering is THE moral problem. For others, suffering barely rates a mention.
In futurology, there is always the danger of mistaking your own personal story with the meta-narrative of the universe. That said, if we all had the hyper-empathetic capacities of mirror-touch synaesthetes, then the moral urgency of phasing out suffering would not seriously be in doubt.
"Don't explain your philosophy. Embody it.” (Epictetus)
Such advice probably shouldn't be taken too literally.
Christopher, thank you. I don't really feel I'm doing a good job. "Selling" the idea of a hyperthymic civilisation needs a Richard Dawkins, or some other gifted populariser. ("The Happy Gene"?)
Alas the daughter of a friend of mine had a chant she used to sing at me:
"A man of words and not of deeds,
Is like a garden full of weeds."
[on Psychedelic Transhumanism]
A mind-jam, not a communal LSD trip, or so I am told...
Transhumanist Mind-jam and Q&A with David Pearce
but perhaps today's ordinary waking consciousness belongs in tomorrow's psychiatric textbooks.
Thanks Rethink Civilization. The distinction between engineering life based on information-sensitive gradients of superhuman bliss and simply engineering superhuman bliss might seem a detail. However, hedonic set-point recalibration has two further big advantages. (1) Critical insight, social responsibility, and intellectual progress can in principle be sustained. There is no increased risk of our civilisation becoming "trapped" in some local maximum – albeit an enviable local maximum from the perspective of countless suffering beings alive today. (2) Unlike traditional utopian schemes, a project of hedonic enrichment in the guise of set-point recalibration doesn't entail changing your own core values and preferences in favour of anyone else's. Thus conjure up your own ideal paradise or conception of the good life. Hedonic recalibration is not a plea to change that conception, let alone to adopt mine, just genetically to ensure that the reality is richer – and sustainably richer - than you could possibly imagine.
Complications? Yes of course, lots. For example, some people’s conception of the good life entails creating or perpetuating involuntary suffering for others. But I think the general point stands.
[on an End of Suffering?]
Does suffering give meaning to life? Would life be more meaningful with more suffering...
The End of Suffering?
Scott Aaronson is the author of the excellent "Quantum Computing since Democritus"
Not to be confused with "Quantum Computing, The First 540 Million Years":
1) As people become happier, life tends to seem more meaningful – sometimes too meaningful. Compare euphoric mania, where everyday experience is charged with an extreme sense of purpose and significance. By contrast, chronic low mood is associated with a sense of emptiness and futility which shades into the nihilism of severe depression.
Needless to say, we don't want to create a world of euphorically manic people. But if our genetically enriched descendants are vastly happier than contemporary humans, then they will most likely find life hugely more significant too.
2) An effectively unlimited abundance of material goods will not - by itself - cheat the hedonic treadmill and abolish suffering. There is little scientific evidence that contemporary humans are typically (un)happier than our ancestors on the African savannah. Humans are social primates. We crave positional or status goods, which are finite by definition. Whether competitive football, chess, politics, war - or the brutal struggle for tenure-track faculty positions in academia – there will be "winners" and "losers". Hence the persistence of suffering might seem inevitable. To imagine that posthuman social life might be akin to us all being “loved up" on MDMA is (probably) naïve.
However, one advantage of using biotech radically to elevate hedonic set-points is that your core values and preference architecture can in principle be preserved while also radically enriching everyone's quality of life. Shifting the upper and lower bounds of your hedonic range, and your typical hedonic set-point, needn't involve sacrificing anything you value. So long as “informational sensitivity" to good and bad stimuli is retained, critical insight and social responsibility can be preserved too. Indeed, there is no technical reason why experience below "hedonic zero" need be conserved at all. For an existence-proof that life based on gradients of intelligent bliss is feasible, we need merely study extreme outliers: some of the very happiest and most productive "hyperthymic" people alive today. We know from twin studies that hedonic set-points have a high degree of genetic loading. If you were choosing via preimplantation genetic screening the attributes of your future children, which variants of the following genes would you select:
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)
Selection pressure in favour of “happier “genomes is likely to accelerate as the reproductive revolution gathers pace.
Pitfalls? Yes, lots.
But every child born today is a unique and untested genetic experiment too.
3) Talk of a living world without suffering sounds ecologically illiterate. Don't transhumanists understand the thermodynamics of a food chain!?
But just as Malthusian predictions of "inevitable" human immiseration were confounded by family planning, likewise an analogous use of fertility regulation is possible via cross-species immunocontraception in tomorrow's wildlife parks. No technical reason exists why sentient beings must harm each other indefinitely. If we want to phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world while at the same time preserving a recognisable approximation of today's “charismatic mega-fauna”, then the real obstacles will be ideological - and perhaps simple status quo bias. The CRISPR revolution in biotech, and the imminent computational accessibly of every cubic metre of the planet to surveillance, micro-management and control, mean that whether intelligent agents decide to preserve the biology of suffering is ultimately an ethical choice.
4) Transhumanists have radically different conceptions of posthuman superintelligence.
Crudely oversimplifying, here are three.
(a) The I.J.Good / E. Yudkowsky / MIRI / Bostrom "Intelligence Explosion". AGI goes 'FOOM': a “replacement” scenario.
(b) A Kurzweilian “fusion”, scenario where humans and our machines effectively merge. Mind-uploading, etc.
(c) A biointelligence explosion, where posthuman superintelligences are our cybernetically-enhanced biological descendants. Recursively self-improving organic robots (i.e. us) master their own genetic source code and bootstrap their way to full-spectrum superintelligence.
Whatever option (if any) you favour, the proposal that we use biotechnology and infotech to phase out suffering does not depend on invoking a “Technological Singularity”, an “Intelligence Explosion”, or any other deus ex machina to solve all our problems. Rather, phasing out the biology of suffering will be technically feasible later this century and beyond with recognisable extensions of existing technologies. (cf. "Genetically Engineering Almost Anything":
Whether phasing out suffering will ultimately prove sociologically feasible is a harder question I won't attempt to answer here.
Sadly, I share Scott's tentative prediction of an increase in suffering this century.
* * *
Do I worry about existential risk from hostile AI? Kevin, AI in the sense of smart weaponry designed by hostile humans, yes. An AGI that goes FOOM (i.e. the I.J. Good / MIRI scenario) and wipes out all humanity, no. But I could be mistaken; it's good these exotic scenarios are researched. My worry comes only when someone argues that the plight of other sentient beings alive now is so trivial in comparison to the spectre of a FOOM scenario that EAs shouldn't waste time on it.
* * *
Why on earth is this moral platitude controversial?
("David Pearce on Singularity 1 on 1: Give Up Eating Meat!")
Compared to the exponential growth of computer processing power, the "circle of compassion" expands only slowly and fitfully. But I still (tentatively) believe in the possibility of sentience-friendly biological intelligence.
* * *
Google cracks the Meaning Of Life?
("Google’s artificial-intelligence bot thinks the purpose of life is 'to live forever'")
One suspects that Google’s Indian counterpart might decide that the purpose of life was moksha.
And maybe a God-like ethical superintelligence would draw similar conclusions.
* * *
Roll on a utilitronium shockwave, or at least genetically preprogrammed bliss. A brief history of happiness...
("The Dangers of Happiness")
* * *
Alas "techno-hedonist" sounds like a style of dance-music...
("'Wisdom of the Great Philosophers on How to Live' by Daniel Klein")
"My life has a superb cast but I can't figure out the plot."
And they all lived happily ever after?
I reckon so. I just wish post-human superintelligence could manage the counterpart of...
* * *
Better never to have been? History is written by the victors, but Darwinian life is a horror story.
("It Possible to Eliminate Suicide?")
When can compassionate biology replace conservation biology?
Adam, thanks. Citing living persons is always a double-edged sword; you can never be sure they won't go off the rails and do or say something stupid. By contrast, asking how biotechnology can deliver Gautama Buddha's dream of the well-being of all sentience, or asking how CRISPR genome-editing can fulfil the Biblical promise of a world where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb (etc), is less likely to frighten the traditional-minded....I hope.
* * *
Buddhist transhumanism: unconditional love and compassion for all sentient beings needs hard-edged science.
[on the end of suffering through science]
The End of Suffering
("Towards the Abolition of Suffering Through Science")
Thanks Adam. One topic we should probably discuss is the ultimate scope of our moral responsibilities. Assume for a moment that our main or overriding goal should be to minimise and ideally abolish involuntary suffering. I typically assume that (a) only biological minds suffer and (b) we are probably alone within our cosmological horizon. If so, then our responsibility is “only” to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering here on Earth and make sure it doesn’t spread or propagate outside our solar system. But Brian [Tomasik], for instance, has quite a different metaphysics of mind, most famously that digital characters in video games can suffer (now only a little – but in future perhaps a lot). The ramifications here for abolitionist bioethics are far-reaching.
[on High-Tech Jainism]
"Let’s pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.” (C.S. Lewis)
More from the crocodile-infested swamp of Melbourne botanical gardens:
("Designing Compassionate Ecosystems - David Pearce")
("David Pearce - Effective Altruism - Phasing Out Suffering")
("Antispeciesism & Compassionate Stewardship - David Pearce")
Thanks guys. “Compassionate biology” sounds a less scientific discipline than “conservation biology”, but they are equally normative. The former discipline assumes that, ideally, sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other, or allow each other to come to harm. The latter discipline seeks to conserve and even extend the horrors of Darwinian life indefinitely.
* * *
Kill off carnivores? Andres we need to consider not just the technical feasibility of possible solutions, but also their sociological credibility - and also what could go wrong. By analogy, we might believe that the quality of life of some infants born with progressive genetic disorders, and some old sick humans in their dotage, means they'd be better off not existing. But the ethical utilitarian may still reckon it's best to enshrine the sanctity of life in law: no euthanasia without informed consent. Both sociological credibility and a prudent lack of trust in human wisdom to get such ethical judgments right means that the most obvious "technical" solution should be resisted. Likewise with nonhuman sentients. In the case of obligate carnivorous predators, yes, allowing such species to go extinct would be my technically preferred option [via mass sterilants, not killing]. Yet the need for species conservation - at least of all the world's species of "charismatic megafauna" - is regarded as so axiomatic by almost everyone that I'm not convinced the extinction option is sociologically credible or helpful to advocate. Of course, plenty of people would say that behavioural-genetic tweaking won't ever be sociologically credible either. But if "wild" humans can be civilised, why not non-humans too...
Alexander, you're right. A careful writer would not be so sweeping. I confess I worry more about life-supporting regions of the multiverse inaccessible to rational agency than the possibility that (super-)intelligent agent beings might reintroduce the biology of suffering at some stage in our forward light-cone - long after its historic abolition. I guess we're speculating here about what classes of problem our descendants [or successors] may find it fruitful or interesting to compute. The only explanation I can think of for why benevolent superintelligence(s) might create a misery-ridden world such as ours would be to prevent or mitigate some humanly unimaginable greater evil. But (for technical reasons I won't go into here unless you're interested) IMO it's likely we're living in basement reality. Suffering discloses an intrinsic feature of one part of the "fire" in the equations. Here we enter deep into scientific metaphysics.
The long-term ethical responsibilities of intelligent agency in the cosmos is poorly understood, to say the least. If the Rare Earth hypothesis is confounded, then we shouldn't rule out altogether the prospect of cosmic rescue-missions. But C.S. Lewis has history on his side.
* * *
Denis, first, many thanks for a thoughtful exploration of the issues. Presumably, an analogous choice might be faced by posthuman superintelligence vis-à-vis Homo sapiens if we suppose, questionably IMO, that posthuman superintelligence won't be our biological descendants. Should posthuman superintelligence subject Homo sapiens to (1) “uplift”? [in which case we'd no longer be human] (2) “re-wilding”? [presumably on reservations mimicking the original evolutionary environment of adaptation] or (3) genetic-behavioural “tweaking”? [i.e. civilising so that we don't cause other sentient beings harm, or suffer harm ourselves.]
Critics of a future pan-species welfare-state (more colourfully, the “vegan tiger” option) claim that tweaking/civilising isn't really conservation biology at all. By analogy today, such a hardcore species-essentialist might claim that bunny-hugging vegans, or loved-up guys on MDMA hugging each other at a rave, are unnatural – after all, it's a violation of our normal behavioural phenotype. Nature “designed” male humans to be hunters and warriors, as shown by our love of violent video games, competitive sports and multi-million dollar global arms-budgets. Nature also “designed” women to be attracted to dominant alpha-males who excel at such behaviours. By trying to civilise ourselves, we're running the risk of losing “what it means to be human”.
Like most compromises, the tweaking/civilising option for human and nonhuman animals alike is extremely messy. As an ivory-tower philosopher, I'm temperamentally more attracted to the prospect of a utilitronium shockwave, not practical politics. The reason for seriously exploring messy compromise options is that thoughtful futurists and bioethicists alike are starting to wonder if we really want to live in a world where sentient beings harm each other, or allow each other to come to harm. Yet (almost) everyone is aghast at the prospect of losing “charismatic mega-fauna” through outright species extinction.
One note on terminology. The three-way distinction between living creatures being “wild”, zoo-bound/incarcerated, and free-living but civilised is worth keeping - despite the gradations in-between. Critics of compassionate stewardship say that creating civilised post-Darwinian life would entail turning the living world into a “zoo”, but not so – or at least not necessarily so. The existence of walls, both physical and metaphorical, doesn't mean that you are living in a zoo or prison...
* * *
Needless to say, launching a transhumanist party with "End Predation Now" as the centrepiece of its policy platform is not what anyone has in mind. But amid the global outpouring of grief for Cecil the Lion, it's worth being clear about our long-term policy goals. Do we want a long-term future where sentient beings harm each other or not?
* * *
Denis, my dark suspicion is that full-spectrum superintelligence wouldn't preserve Darwinian life in any shape or form. Compare humanity's approach to archiving the smallpox virus. However, perhaps I shouldn't presume to speak for posthuman superintelligence. Naturally, the issue of consent crops up. Its precise nature and relevance is unclear. Thus a human infant or nonhuman animal can't give or withhold consent to be vaccinated against some nasty disease because neither are cognitively capable of understanding vaccination. Or to use a rather different example, neither a stricken toddler nor a zebra in the jaws of a hungry crocodile can expressly consent to be rescued. Their expressed preference not to be harmed is manifest beyond doubt.
What might (conceivably) be politically feasible later this century? IMO the widest possible popular consensus on the long-term objective of phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering deserves to be combined with an immense scholarly discipline devoted entirely to exploring scenarios of what could go wrong.
What would a full-spectrum superintelligence do to the biosphere?
* * *
What should be the fate of human and nonhuman predators?
("To truly end animal suffering, the most ethical choice is to kill wild predators (especially Cecil the lion")
There is a difference between arguing that our long-term goal should be compassionate stewardship - including ending predation and starvation - and arguing we should be hurling ourselves into veganising Nature now. The reason for having the debate is that some animal advocates believe that we should be investing time and resources in e.g. "rewilding", captive breeding programs for big cats, and so forth. Do we want a long-term future where sentient beings harm each other or not?
* * *
Another way to promote vegan cats...
http://toyland.gizmodo.com/hasbro-now-has-a-toy-line-for-seniors-starting-with-a-l-1743122884 ("Hasbro Now Has a Toy Line For Seniors Starting With a Lifelike Robotic Cat")
* * *
A plea to bump off all philosophers:
("I am horrified at what goes on in philosophy departments, personally")
However well-intentioned, violent solutions tend to provoke violent responses. Of course, there is no guarantee debating whether obligate predators should have reproductive rights won't trigger inflammatory language too; but if nothing else, stress on non-violence helps keep the temperature down...
Unclefrogy, in the post-CRISPR era, selection pressure is likely to intensify, not diminish. Intelligent moral agents can engineer greater biodiversity and greater genetic variety than was ever possible under a regime of natural selection. You ask what “authority” gives us the right to intervene. It’s the same “authority” that mandates helping members of other ethnic groups. Do you believe we were wrong to wipe out smallpox? Should eradicating malaria be reckoned immoral on the grounds we may upset ecological balance? By all means highlight the pitfalls of compassionate stewardship. But a world where sentient beings don’t harm each other is more civilised than a world where we go around eating each other.
Shikko, take for example the SCN9A gene. Nonsense mutations of SCN9A induce congenital pain-insensitivity. Other alleles induce abnormally high or abnormally low pain-sensitivity. CRISPR and “gene drives” allow intelligent moral agents to choose the level of physical suffering undergone by members of other species. Such an example could be multiplied with each of our core emotions. Testosterone function and the spectrum of behaviour it promotes can be modulated too – for good or ill. The biggest challenge here is ethical-ideological - or rather status quo bias - not ultimately technical, although the technical challenges are immense.
Stephen, if we do eventually phase out the horrors of predation, the driving impetus will most likely come from “autistic” hyper-systematising rule-followers, not hyper-empathetic animal lovers – and for the same reason that vegetarians tend to be disproportionately female, whereas the ratio of male-to-female vegans is roughly even. Pop-psychologising aside, intelligent moral agents will shortly be able to choose whether we want a biosphere where sentient beings hurt, harm and kill each other – or not. One needn’t be any kind of utilitarian to support phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering.
In my view, any defence of phasing out predation should stress non-violent options. The issue of (notional) reproductive rights for predators is controversial, but it’s not as inflammatory as a plea for mass genocide. Also, the feasibility of regulating population sizes via cross-species immunocontraception (etc) is worth stressing from the outset because most readers assume that philosophers are ecologically illiterate and don’t understand the thermodynamics of a food chain.
As a route to gaining public support, IMO focus on large long-lived vertebrates probably trumps calculations of biomass. Dentist Walter Palmer says that he'd not have killed Cecil The Lion if he'd known that Cecil had a name. Giving all large, long-lived free-living and domestic animals names - or at least discreet name-tags - might be a good start. Beginning with a single long-lived charismatic species (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/abolitionist-project/elephantcare.html) and only later working our way across the phylogenetic tree (via CRISPR and "gene drives") carries IMO more sociological credibility than prioritising invertebrates - though I'm still sceptical either initiative will happen before the in vitro meat revolution and the end of factory-farming.
* * *
Crip, first feasibility. Is a living world where sentient beings don't physically hurt, harm and kill each other technically, ecologically, thermodynamically possible?
Initially, of course, we wouldn't tackle all the world's ecosystems simultaneously. We'd do a pilot study in a wildlife park: cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception, GPS tracking, in vitro meat and/or genetic tweaking of obligate carnivores (etc).
“Killing diseased members of a community prevents epidemics”. Yes, sure. But vaccinations and cures are more civilised than violent solutions for human and nonhuman animals alike.
Phasing our predation will have “a serious impact on the evolution of new traits”? Yes indeed. But CRISPR genome-editing and “gene drives” promise a far richer diversity of genomes, psychologies and behaviours than was possible under a regime of natural selection.
Teething problems, unanticipated side-effects, you name it? Yes, no doubt. However, we aren't talking about a Five Year Plan, but rather the long-term future of predation in the context of a wider project of compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world.
Second, ethics and policy-making. You and I could lay out our respective theories of value and normative ethics. Perhaps more fruitful is exploring the scope for compromise and consensus - just as we almost all agree about the desirability of e.g. eliminating malaria, despite an immense diversity of values and belief systems. Thanks to biotechnology, all that's needed to get the project of compassionate stewardship off the ground is a weak and watered-down ethical principle: other things being equal, intelligent moral agents should try to reduce the amount of involuntary suffering that sentient beings undergo. The goal of reducing suffering needn't express our sole or even our primary ethic; we may be utilitarians or deontologists or virtue theorists or ethic pluralists and so forth. Most religious and secular ethicists would put some weight on reducing cruelty and suffering. You don't need to be a Buddhist or a Benatarian or a negative utilitarian (etc) to believe the burden of avoidable suffering in the living world should be reduced as the biotech revolution matures - and the cost of code-editing collapses.
Ultimately, why preserve involuntary suffering at all?
I’ve yet to hear an ethically compelling case.
“Arrogant”? If one has the chance to save a toddler belonging to another ethnic group from drowning in a shallow pond, or being mauled by a predator (etc), we wouldn't claim that walking on by is more modest and unassuming. Who are we to question the mysterious working of Providence (etc). So why is it any more arrogant to rescue beings of comparable sentience and salience to a human toddler but who belong to a different species? We share the same core emotions and pleasure-pain axis. More generally, should our benevolence be ad hoc or systematic?
“Escape reward” at outrunning a predator? Are we really claiming that such acute relief somehow ethically outweighs the life-or-death trauma involved? No doubt someone who escapes from a human predator experiences a wave of relief too. Yet one hesitates to ask, say, a woman who has escaped from the clutches of a violent rapist whether the experience has been a net positive in her life. Such examples could be multiplied: post-traumatic stress disorder is more common.
“Relief” for a sick animal? We wouldn't argue that violent human predators who prey on the old the sick are doing the vulnerable a favour by putting them out of their misery. Likewise with sentient beings from other species. Believers in an ethic of compassionate stewardship hope that eventually the range and depth of our interventions can be extended across the phylogenetic tree. But first, let's close slaughterhouses and factory farms.....
Thank you Lydia. Yes, CRISPR and gene drives promise to revolutionise the well-being of free-living frogs..
* * *
("How Wolves Change Rivers")
Thanks Chris. Haunting mood music, beautifully choreographed wildlife photography, and the hushed reverential voiceover of David Attenborough; here we have a textbook example of the ideology of conservation biology masquerading as value-neutral science. Wolves eat their larger victims alive; and cause terror, agony and unimaginable distress to their victims. We wouldn't consider such depredations an ethically acceptable way to control the population sizes of members of other races. When contemplating "re-wilding", why turn civilised values on their head for sentient beings from other species?
For sure, both "rewilding" at one extreme and compassionate biology at the other can potentially have unanticipated consequences. Thankfully, there's no evidence that we're going to run out of processing power so they become computationally intractable. Perhaps compare malaria. Plasmodium falciparum has killed around half the humans who ever lived (cf. "Portrait of a serial killer":
No doubt some Deep Green neo-primitivist could produce a lyrical documentary on the wholesome ecological effects of protozoan parasites curbing human population sizes in sub-Saharan Africa. Thankfully, most of us recognise that what's needed isn't killing more African children but instead better disease-prevention and help with family planning. The bedrock of any civilised regime of responsible stewardship of the rest of the living world will be cross-species fertility regulation. Ultimately, whether humans or our descendants support the cruelties of traditional Darwinian life or some kind of high-tech Jainism will be an ethical choice.
* * *
("All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.")
"Nature Can't Exist Without Suffering—And We Can't Change That
Just because we want to limit wild animals’ pain doesn’t mean it's a good idea to intervene."
Andrew, yes, the entire "vibe" is different. But just as with human-oriented charities, a contrast exists between the tender-minded "empathetic" cognitive-style at one extreme and an “autistic" hyper-systematising cognitive style on the other. The Effective Altruist movement aims to combine both - easy to say, hard to do. Of course, there are substantive differences between then and now too. Back in the 1980s, it simply wasn’t possible to imagine a world of in vitro meat, cross-species immunocontraception or CRISPR-based "gene drives” (etc) for compassionate stewardship of Nature.
* * *
("Why the world needs to bring back woolly mammoths")
Alex Using cross-species rather than single-species immunocontraception to regulate ecologically sustainable population sizes has never yet been done; but it's well within the bounds of technical feasibility. In practice, lots of advocates of preserving the Darwinian status quo lose their bias when some "cool" idea like bringing back woolly mammoths is proposed. And yes, I'd personally love to see a woolly mammoth. But aesthetics should not trump ethics.
One mega-project in particular struck me as eminently sane:
Eight Craziest Mega-Engineering Projects
Chris, as you know I'm a great admirer of Jain ethics. But the ancients could not have anticipated the superposition principle for complex probability amplitudes in quantum theory. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_superposition). In my (tentative) view, the superposition principle is needed - and is all that is needed - to explain why anything exists at all and the properties of our bound phenomenal minds:
* * *
Magnus, thank you. I fear the case for high-tech Jainism - or whatever label we give to using biotech to underwrite the well-being of all sentient beings - will seem compelling only after the in vitro meat revolution. But at a time when "re-wilding" projects are popular, the case for "de-wilding" humans and nonhuman animals alike needs to be heard.
[on Negative Utilitarianism]
The NU Study Group (no, not one of my hats - although I know and admire the authors) have released the Negative Utilitarianism FAQ.
We agree that a commitment to reduce, prevent and ultimately (ideally) abolish involuntary suffering is consistent with a diversity of value systems, not all of which give overriding ethical importance - or even prioritise - phasing out suffering. But it's good to see NU receiving sustained scrutiny.
My own NU musings culled from a response to Toby Ord.
Thanks Mark. The potentially apocalyptic implications of a classical utilitarian ethic aren’t much explored in the scholarly literature. By contrast, the potentially apocalyptic implications of negative utilitarianism are typically regarded as its reductio ad absurdum. In terms of practical politics, a post-CRISPR future of life based on gradients of intelligent bliss is more politically saleable than utilitarian bioethics because – complications aide - even radical hedonic enrichment doesn’t entail asking anyone to give up their cherished values and preferences, or buy into your vision of the good life rather than theirs. Yet for the committed classical utilitarian, can anything less than a utilitronium shockwave be more than a stopgap?
[on Peter Singer]
Negative utilitarianism, the future of predation, utilitronium shockwaves...
video of Peter Singer and David Pearce
Talk of moral progress can make one sound naive. But even the darkest cynic should salute the extraordinary work of Peter Singer to promote the interests of all sentient beings:
("What do Peter Singer and David Pearce think of each other?")
Bleak ultra-Darwinism suggests that life is all about creatures eating each other - both literally and figuratively. But the superior intelligence of one largely - but not wholly - depraved species shows how we may claw our way out of the Darwinian abyss.
David, I don't know Peter Singer personally, so I know only what I've been told. (Adam Ford could fill you in) I used to worry that Peter Singer would regard stuff about ending predation as beyond the pale. The line between far-sighted radicalism and Crank Alley isn't always clear. But predation is now one item on the ethics course Singer teaches.
For me, the final piece in the abolitionist jigsaw was provided by Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation" (1986).
I'd grasped the basic principles of cross-species immunocontraception. But until Drexler, I couldn't fathom how the project could be taken to the furthermost reaches of the living world, not least to the deep oceans. [Suffering isn't Drexler's focus, but nanorobotics can be used for purposes fair and foul.] Even Drexler couldn't anticipate "gene drives"; they accelerate timescales to completion. Either way, radical abolitionism via biotech was still unpublishable, or so I assumed. Recall that before the Net (or rather, the Web), folk with weird and wonderful ideas were free to declaim them on street corners (or in my case, the local coffee-shop), but were otherwise destined to toil in obscurity. Intellectual history is full of folk with odd ideas who finally got them heard after overcoming seemingly impossible odds. What history doesn't record are lonely researchers who got discouraged and just gave up. Sadly I suspect this is still to some extent true today.
Thanks Sonali. The idea that we should promote the interests of human and nonhuman animals alike isn't especially radical on the Indian subcontinent. The concept of ahimsa is common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. But such an inclusive concept of our ethical responsibilities is largely alien to the Abrahamic religions and (until recently) the ethics of their secular offshoots. Peter Singer has done more than anyone alive to promote this change of Western perspective. But as long as we have factory-farms and slaughterhouses, it's impossible to talk seriously about living in a civilised society.
("The Expanding Circle")
I recall once incurring the displeasure of a Trotskyist for dissenting from Trotsky's opinion that "The workers of Kronstadt should be shot down like rabbits."
Only after being treated to a ten-minute harangue was I able to communicate my objection, namely that civilised humans should not be shooting rabbits.
Sean, IMO, Peter Singer has quite finely developed political antennae. Part of being an effective political actor / public intellectual is knowing just how far you can go - and going no further, irrespective of how rationally compelling your argument may be. Whether predation, in vitro meat, gay marriage - speak too soon and you're marginalised as a crank, weigh in too late and you're not really contributing to the debate - as distinct from offering welcome solidarity and support.
But yes, it's a tough one.
"Bioethicist" sounds cooler than "moral philosopher"; but will history be kind to any of us?
("The Bioethicists Dilemma")
* * *
Whether (dis)value can be naturalised is contentious. On the one hand, we may invoke Hume's guillotine. How can an "ought" be derived from an "is"? On the other hand, a normative aspect seems built into the very nature of agony, for example. If you're in agony, its disvaluable nature seems self-intimating: it's not an "open question".
An anti-realist about value might respond: "Sure, your agony is disvaluable for you. But it's not disvaluable for me. There is no objective fact of the matter".
However, it's unclear whether this dismissal reflects some deep metaphysical truth or a mere epistemological limitation on the part of the critic. Science says that none of us is special or privileged. Insofar as agony is disvaluable for me, I infer it's disvaluable for anyone, anywhere - and try to act accordingly. A posthuman superbeing who could impartially access all first-person and third-person facts might do the same on a cosmological scale.
("The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics")
David, a couple of points. First, the transhumanist movement isn't committed to promoting a utilitronium shockwave. Secondly, yes, folk have all sorts of crazy ideas - one has no time or duty to engage them all. But if a widely accepted ethic - in this case classical utilitarianism - has a wildly implausible disguised implication that's far more radical than e.g. the homely dilemmas of the "trolley problem" (etc), then such a disguised implication should be rigorously explored - even if one believes that implication is a ruductio ad absurdum of classical utilitarian ethics.
... Most of the arguments critics make against utilitarian policies are themselves implicitly utilitarian, i.e. they appeal to the bad consequences that would follow from their adoption - which if true, simply shows that the policies in question eren't really utilitarian at all. Would utilitarians - including NUs - be wise to advocate enshrining the sanctity of life - human and nonhuman - in law?
* * *
Keith, could you possibly clarify? By "utilitarian function" do you mean utility function? Naturally, one can disagree with classical utilitarian decision procedures and/or theory of value. But it's unclear how the classical utilitarian can escape this apocalyptic if disguised implication of his own ethic. (cf. Utilitronium Shockwaves)
By contrast, the allegedly apocalyptic implications of negative utilitarianism are well-known: they are the first thing most people will raise (typically as a supposed reductio ad absurdum) if you say you’re a negative utilitarian.
In response, the classical utilitarian may want to stress that launching a utilitronium shockwave isn’t likely to be technically feasible for centuries – it’s more of a “philosophical” notion. Aiming for a civilisation of intelligent bliss – and conserving much of our existing preference architecture - is more technically and sociologically realistic. This would be my preferred policy option. Yet if one is a utilitarian of any kind, such temporal discounting is problematic...
* * *
For evolutionary reasons, men in particular tend to crave novelty. The worse thing many men especially can imagine isn’t being anxious or depressed but being bored. A future of perpetual bliss sounds…well, samey. So it’s natural to want to build novelty (and scope for personal growth, etc) into one’s core values from the outset. As we’ve discussed, even radical recalibration of hedonic set-points and our hedonic range is more than compatible with rich diversity and novelty-seeking. Other things being equal, the happier one is, the wider the diversity of external stimuli one finds rewarding.
...for the classical utilitarian, hedonic enhancement and recalibration can’t be anything more than stopgap. Classical utilitarian Tony Ord describes negative utilitarianism as a "devastatingly callous" doctrine, rather than systematised compassion as its proponents assume. But contra Toby, if anything the apocalyptic implications of a CU versus NU ethic tend to cut the other way. Thus a notional classical utilitarian AI that went FOOM would presumably convert the world into pure, uniform hedonium/orgasmium. Of course, we may be sceptical of such runaway AGI scenarios on other grounds, in my case technical grounds. But any classical utilitarian would seem committed to working towards such a utilitronium shockwave. By contrast, NUs will settle for life based on gradients of intelligent bliss - and as much (or as little) novelty as takes your fancy.
Back to practical EA. Despite such a seemingly fundamental clash of values, I hope we can hammer out a consensus on concrete policies to support. Not least, tackling Third World poverty and disease, universal access to preimplantation genetic screening, outlawing factory-farming and slaughterhouses, phasing out predation and other sources of free-living animal suffering, research into AI risks and opportunities (etc) are all consistent and (I hope we can agree) ethically desirable - even if you think one or more of these goals is comparatively non-urgent.
* * *
Thanks Adam. I used to assume that Peter Singer would regard some of my views as too "weird" to want to share a stage. But take, say, the issue of predation. IMO the idea that sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other will one day seem too ethically obvious even to need articulating. Technically, the accelerating revolution in CRISPR-based gene-drive systems makes it harder for bioconservative critics to claim that a happy biosphere is ecologically impossible. What is truly "weird" - weird in its policy implications, not its abstract formulation - is classical utilitarian ethics. But utilitarian ethics aren’t needed to champion a happy biosphere.
* * *
If your core ethical principle has a wildly counterintuitive policy implication, should you embrace the implication or abandon the principle (or alternatively, abandon the shackles of logical consistency)? Either way, let’s hope secular and religious folk alike can agree on phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering and engineering a civilisation of intelligent bliss. As stopgaps go, there are worse...
[on bioconservatism at the BBC]
A bioconservative response to transhumanist agenda:
BBC Radio 4 History of Ideas
Surgeon Gabriel Weston on future use of medical technology.
I was roped in to provide some "balance". We shall see.
In the meantime:
[on transhumanism in China]
[Adam Ford writes] "Will China be the first to engineer extremely happy people?
David Pearce is now on YouKu - ~1.4 billion people in China will potentially be exposed to David's disarming smile!"
Transhumanism with a Chinese Face
Thank you Adam, Mafalda, Shubhangi, Fay. Transhumanism should be spoken in many tongues - though perhaps with a British accent.
The Hedonistic Imperative has breached the Great Firewall of China:
The Hedonistic Imperative on Youku
("Mini Documentary - The Hedonistic Imperative - David Pearce (Take 1)—在线播放—优酷网，视频高清在线观看 v.youku.com")
Whether genetically preprogrammed gradients of bliss ever become Party orthodoxy remains to be seen. Perhaps enemies of the revolution will be dispatched to pleasure camps for education through bliss - and subjected to acts of inhuman kindness. Meanwhile:
("Scientists successfully genetically modify human embryos, allowing for editing of babies’ genes")
[on effective altruism in Melbourne]
("Effective Altruism Melbourne")
Photo of DP, JO and PS
Do your sympathies lie with advocates of pan-galactic radiation? Or C.S. Lewis: "Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere?"
Science, Effective Altruism & Astronomical Impacts
* * *
Astronomical Stakes or a Rounding Error?
("EA Global Melbourne 2015 starring David Pearce! This one is on Astronomical Stakes!
Panelists: Neil Bowerman, Adam Ford, David Pearce - Moderated by Kerry Vaughan")
Thanks Adam! A gulf clearly separates life-loving EAs focused on possible "astronomical waste" and darker Buddhist/Benatarian/NU EAs (e.g. Brian Tomasik) worried about "astronomical harm". The obvious policy compromise here would seem to wait until we have safely abolished the biology of suffering on Earth before radiating across our Hubble volume. Needless to say, there are complications.
On a sad personal note, I always find cosmological discussions a potent disincentive to any form of action - the finitist analogue of "infinitarian paralysis". Waking up to discover the number of flux vacua ("universes") in string theory has increased from c. 10500 to c. 10272,000 (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1511.03209v1.pdf - "The F-theory geometry with most flux vacua") is enough to put anyone off their cornflakes.
Of course, the vast majority of string vacua don't support life, any more than the vast majority of Everett branches. That still leaves googols that do. Our own possible imminent utilitronium shockwave [or its intelligent, gradients-of-superhuman-bliss analogue] may be a mere rounding error in the great scheme of things. Let's hope theoretical physics is barking up the wrong tree.
* * *
("Princeton bioethics professor faces calls for resignation over infanticide support")
Thank you Francisco. Alas a plea for phasing out predation - human and nonhuman - can be (mis)represented as advocacy of mass genocide of predators. Likewise, a compassionate NU ethic can be (mis)represented as a devilish plot for provoking Armageddon. Unlike Peter Singer and Francesca Minerva, I reckon it's safest on utilitarian grounds to enshrine the sanctity of life in law because humans can't be trusted. Alas this is a subtlety likely to get lost.
NU versus Virtual Ethics (video)
(David Pearce in conversation with virtue ethicist Justin Oakley)
Justin is a splendid fellow; but you probably detected my scepticism about virtue ethics. If raping one's sister and eating one's mother had helped maximise the inclusive fitness of one's genes on the African savannah, then one would find such behaviours intuitively virtuous. By contrast, the (dis)value of first-person pain and pleasure is culturally invariant.
I hope we can build a pan-galactic civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss. Retaining informational sensitivity to "good" and "bad" stimuli means there is no need for anyone to give up values such as e.g. novelty or intellectual progress, no need to become an ethical utilitarian, no need even to embrace secular rather than religious ethics. Complications aside, whatever you care about isn't jeopardised by having a higher hedonic set-point or higher upper and lower bound of your hedonic range. What biohappiness does do is underwrite a subjectively high quality of life for everyone: not a “perfect” life, but still incomparable richer than malaise-ridden Darwinian life.
Of course, ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points isn't totally preference-neutral. If it were totally preference-neutral, then negative hedonic tone would not have evolved. But only social animals get depressed: low mood (and its accompanying behavioural suppression) would appear to be a genetic adaptation to group living in the ancestral environment of adaptation. The biotech revolution and the imminent reproductive revolution of designer babies changes the nature of selection pressure insofar as intelligent agents will shortly choose the genetic make-up of their offspring in anticipation of the likely behaviour and psychological consequences of their choices. By contrast, natural selection is blind and driven by random mutations.
Wolf, it's a fact of life that most people will recall only a cartoon-like simplification of one's views - just as one recalls only a cartoon-like simplification of their views. "High-tech Jainism" and the non-original "sanctity of life" aren't ideal slogans for a secular rationalist. Being branded an advocate of mass-extermination is worse.
Wolf, agreed. I admire intellectual honesty; I was just urging brand-awareness. "Effective altruism" is a strong brand; "Infanticide" is a disaster. [Recall how Francesca [Minerva] was pilloried in the media, ensuring that the richness of her views was totally lost] And it's important that euthanasia and infanticide aren't lumped together; the former is - or ought to be - voluntary, whereas the latter by its nature can't be an individual choice, which isn't to say it's inherently wrong. [Do I think a chronically pain-ridden infant born with, say, Tay-Sach's disease would be better off not existing? Yes, of course. But can humans trust our judgements about who should be killed in their own interests? Regrettably no, IMO; maybe I'm too pessimistic.]
* * *
Ben Goertzel and HI
("Ben Goertzel - The Hedonistic Imperative & the Cosmist Manifesto")
Thanks Adam. Another thoughtful interview: you bring out the best in people. Aiming for cosmological maximum bliss is inconsistent with most people's goals and aspirations. Not least, such an ethic seems to dictate launching a utilitronium shockwave. By contrast to such "cosmic orgasm" scenarios, using biotechnology "conservatively" to ratchet up (and even maximise) hedonic set-points doesn't entail making joy our only, or even our primary, goal - although such a hedonic recalibration will tend hugely to improve subjective quality of life. Ben urges giving opportunities for Personal Growth and Choice equal weight. No doubt other core goals will be on many people's list.
Of course, we shouldn't exaggerate the potential scope for consensus. Radical hedonic recalibration is itself inconsistent with some people's values - not least, folk who believe in the sanctity of the human germline.
* * *
A trade-off? Adam, once we have phased out all experience below "hedonic zero", there is a sense (IMO) in which all our ethical duties have been discharged - beyond making sure the biology of suffering is never recreated. Everything else - the gradients of superhuman bliss that I anticipate - is icing on the cake.
Growth? Well, just as there are a finite number of perfect games of chess or draughts, likewise there are a finite number of optimal states of sentience within any given Hubble volume. You can't "grow" outside that state-space of optimal sentience because any change would be a derogation.
Choice? Assume you are a posthuman supermind with full mastery of your reward circuitry and hedonic range. Compare and contrast the texture of life lived between, say, hedonic +1 and + 10 with life lived between +90 and +100. Might you decide: life animated by superhuman bliss is just too wonderful, I'll settle instead for what archaic humans used to call “being in a good mood”? Maybe! By all means celebrate choice. But I suspect the sovereignty of the pleasure principle makes the outcome a foregone conclusion.
Now, about the implementation details...
* * *
Serving animal products? Is moral progress possible without inducing feelings of discomfort - sometimes in others but also our own? Either way, not serving animal products at EA events shouldn't cause discomfort, let alone involve harassment. Clearly, the actual victims suffer a worse fate than feeling 'harassed'.
(OK, I don't know the backstory story here.)
[on the best of all possible worlds]
https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/3fkfht/what_would_the_best_of_all_possible_worlds/ Than you UmamiSalami. HI was written in late 1995. Since then, the human genome has been decoded, in vitro meat has passed from science fiction to imminent commercialisation, and the CRISPR revolution in genome-editing (cf. DIY CRISPR genome-editing kits promises a future where existing humans - and not just our future children – can enjoy radically enriched reward circuitry. If I were to rewrite HI today, then I'd lay greater stress on how phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is consistent with a wide range of secular and religious value systems. Thus one needn't be any kind of utilitarian, or believe that phasing out suffering should be our only or primary goal, to support recalibration of the hedonic treadmill - and getting rid of involuntary misery and malaise throughout the living world. Even radical elevation of your hedonic set-point can still leave much (if not all) of your existing preference architecture and core values intact – if that is what you so desire. A combination of the pleasure principle and tomorrow’s biotech allow posthuman life to be animated by gradients of intelligent bliss. Risks and pitfalls abound, but I think it’s a future worth striving for.
The inevitability of selfishness? Intuitively you're right. But perhaps recall mirror-touch synaesthetes. A mirror-touch synaesthete can derive as much pleasure from witnessing you having fun as (s)he may suffer from witnessing your distress. Of course, evolution via natural selection has made most of us more selfish than hyper-empathetic mirror-touch synaesthestes. But now that humans are on the brink of mastering our genetic source code, we shouldn't imagine that life is necessarily a zero-sum game. Unlike, say, scarce positional goods and services, the substrates of pure bliss don't need to be rationed.
* * *
Why focus on the genetic-biological routes of suffering? Whether in personal life, politics, religion, and sport - you name it - people have a multitude of different preferences. Often these preferences are irreconcilable. Radical enhancement of hedonic set-points and the biology of reward doesn't resolve these conflicting preferences. Such hedonic enrichment "merely" ensures that everyone enjoys a high subjective quality of life. Analogously, imagine if a specialist in chronic pain medicine insisted not just in treating his patients’ pain, but delivering homilies on how what really matters is the kind of pain-free lives his patients lived, their choices, and their values: people should recognise that being free from physical pain isn't enough! Of course, the pain-specialist would be right - but he's exceeding his brief. Heliotecach712, you'll see the point of the analogy. I could (and sometimes do!) outline my socio-political views on everything from world poverty to global warming to peace in the Middle East - and more generally, my conception of the good life and the ideal society. Maybe the ideas are good, maybe bad; either way, (1) I seriously doubt many people will listen; and (2) even if implemented to the letter, they'd still leave an immense burden of present and future suffering untouched.
By contrast, using genetic-biological tools to ensure that everyone enjoys a subjectively high quality of life promises an end to the ancient Darwinian cycle of misery and malaise. Starting off with unrestricted parental access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling, such a reproductive revolution can potentially universalise the exceptionally high quality of life enjoyed by a handful of genetic outliers with ultra-high hedonic set-points today. Like promoting physical superhealth, promoting mental superhealth isn't about anyone's vision of the perfect society or some utopian vision of social harmony. Mental and physical superhealth just lays the preconditions – no more - for a civilised society where we all can flourish. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. If we’re serious about underwriting such good health for all, then only genetic medicine can deliver. What our descendants (and older selves?) will do with such enhanced health we can only speculate.
* * *
Qualia computing from Andres
Envy, jealousy and resentment are typically more genetically adaptive than counting one’s blessings. The discontented tend to be more successful at maximising the inclusive fitness of their genes than the happy-go-lucky. Women who are neurotically anxious tend to be more successful at raising offspring to maturity than the temperamentally serene. And so on. Natural selection didn't design us to be happy. For sure, most people aren't chronically depressed – the behavioural suppression associated with depression is a conditionally activated fall-back strategy adaptive for life’s genetic “losers”. Yet low mood still blights hundreds of millions lives.
What’s to be done? In the long run, recursively self-editing our sinister genetic source code is presumably the only answer. But how to get there? Don’t nice guys finish last? Yes, typically. However, harnessing our darker motives - not least, competitive male altruism - can help claw our way out of the Darwinian abyss.
[on effective altruism in Basel]
(Brian Tomasik, David Pearce, Ruairí Donnelly, Micha Eichmann, and David Althaus in Basel)
Brian, thanks for the Amazon link, which made me smile. Anyhow, surely there is a critical difference between consciousness and the élan vital postulated by vitalists. If I've a migraine, then the phenomenal pain I undergo is not some hypothetical property, object or event that I postulate to explain something else. Rather, the phenomenal pain is what needs explaining. The widely shared background assumption that experience doesn't disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical would seem to make such an explanation impossible - without sacrificing monistic physicalism and the unity of science.
In the tradition of Schopenhauer, Russell, Lockwood and now Strawson, IMO there's a better option. Perhaps the non-experiential stuff that materialists posit is the “fire” in the equations should be discarded like the ether, as redundant metaphysics. What makes organic minds special isn't that the "fire" in the equations each of instantiates is different from the rest of the universe, but instead the way it's organised.
* * *
Brian. I'm still trying to pinpoint exactly where we diverge. Granted some form of Strawsonian physicalism or otherwise scientifically literate panpsychism, can you clarify why you believe classical digital computers can be more than micro-experiential zombies? Here's a thought-experiment. Presumably, the skull-bound population of the USA could each be given a euphoriant drug and recruited to implement the function of nociception in a pan-continental virtual robot. Do you believe that somehow a unitary pain-racked pan-continental subject of experience could arise from the population of discrete but interconnected blissed-out Americans executing the relevant Nociception program? Less fancifully, assume that we train up, or program, a silicon (etc) robot to support nociception. Isn't the question of whether the robot's CPU's is made up of primordial micro-pains or micro-pleasures or silicon or gallium arsenide a purely incidental implementation detail? The robot will function just as well if its circuitry is made of discrete digital micro-pleasures as discrete digital micro-pains: their textures are logically and physically incidental to its functionality. Or do you believe that - in virtue of the program executed by a digital computer - a bunch of discrete digital micro-pleasures could give rise to a unitary phenomenal macro-pain? If so, by what mechanism?
* * *
Brian, a couple of points. First, we'd agree that (a generalisation of) mirror-touch synaesthesia isn't necessary for friendliness. Do you believe it's sufficient?
Second, yes, phenomenal binding comes in degrees. If phenomenal binding didn't come in degrees, then natural selection would have lacked the variation in raw materials to shape the multiple bound phenomenal objects and cross-modally matched phenomenal worlds of our everyday experience. Thus someone with simultanagnosia, who can see only one object at once, needn't have motion blindness, nor need (s)he be schizophrenic, i.e. (s)he still has something resembling a unitary phenomenal self. By contrast, a classical digital computer - or the skull-bound population of the USA co-opted into performing any computation that we choose for the purposes of an experiment – lacks any phenomenal binding, whether partial or total, local or global. Or rather, neither system has phenomenal binding if reductive physicalism is true. The challenge – if one believes that membrane-bound neurons are always discrete classical objects – is to explain why a pack of discrete neurons / classical “mind-dust” in the CNS aren't incapable of phenomenal binding as well.
* * *
Just as people with Cotard's syndrome can believe they are dead (cf. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/real-life-stories/being-corpse-most-bizarre-experience-4982716), radical eliminativists have identified the syndrome of Sentientism, undergone by folk who believe we are conscious.
Brian, one note about your taxonomy. Scientifically literate monistic idealists can be physicalists too. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com) Whereas “ontic structural realists” like Ross and Ladyman deny the world has any intrinsic properties, just the relational properties allowed by general relativity and quantum field-theoretic physics, by contrast Strawsonian physicalists believe that the intrinsic prosperities of the natural world – the “fire” in the equations - are experiential.
If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then strictly speaking, all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. This view isn't the same as functionalism because the [minimal] subjective properties of most physical states are functionally incidental – of no more computational relevance to an information-processing system than whether a microprocessor executing a program is made of silicon or gallium arsenide, or chess pieces are made of wood or metal.
However, organic minds, at least, can talk about their own “program-resistant” subjective properties. Do the particular intrinsic subjective properties of at least some states of our phenomenally bound conscious minds play an indispensable functional role in our behaviour? What else, other than these intrinsic subjective properties, could physically allow us to allude to their existence?
The nasty “raw feels” of phenomenal pain are about as real as it gets for me. If someone says subjective experience has no place in their ontology, then I say so much the worse for their theory of the world.
* * *
"How do qualia observe qualia?"
Short, boring answer, Christian: we don't know. However (IMO), from a pain in the cephalic ganglion of a humble flatworm to this self-referential indexical thought, all qualia share the property of being self-intimating. Some philosophers have decried the notion of "ownerless pain". Indeed, it's not as though a roundworm has a self-concept in any sense we would recognise. But IMO it's not the case that a pain is ownerless. Rather, the pain is "owned" by itself.
* * *
Can EA transcend the pleasure principle? No, but we can harness it. To be maximally effective, perhaps EA needs to tap into ways to make people feel good and show off - an EA version of the potlatch.
(Like many people, I find myself more altruistic when people are watching; and most altruistic when people are watching but imagine I'm oblivious of being observed.)
* * *
Like Tim, I'm sometimes worried I've not properly understood Brian's position. It's potentially ethically disastrous to suppose that first-person facts (e.g. I-am-in-pain) have some sort of second-rate ontological status on account of our epistemological limitations. First-person facts are real, objective, spatio-temporal features of the natural world - as objectively real as the rest-mass of the electron. Confusion on this score is IMO one reason we should develop technologies of e.g. reversible thalamic bridges
to allow “mind-melding" both with other humans and sentient beings from other species. Such technologies could help us finally overcome the sceptical Problem of Other Minds - usually reckoned insoluble.
Mind-melding technologies may lead, not just to a Copernican moral revolution, but also a revolution in our conception of decision-theoretic rationality.
The proposal that mature posthuman ethics and rationality might converge sounds almost too good to be true. But I (tentatively) believe this to be the case.
Perhaps compare the orthodox metaphysical individualism presupposed by the Less Wrong Decision Theory FAQ:
* * *
What do IQ tests miss?
("High levels of moral reasoning correspond with increased gray matter in brain")
* * *
Chris, yes, a combination of the argument from analogy and the principle of mediocrity (natural science gives none of us reason to believe that we're special) offer strong grounds for believing in the sentience of other organic robots - although for perhaps a tenth of the time, one is mistaken, i.e. one is dreaming. However, on the orthodox materialist account of the nature of the physical, namely the mysterious “fire” in the field-theoretic equations is non-experiential, it's inexplicable why we aren't all p-zombies, just as on the orthodox neuroscience story, it's inexplicable why we're not at most patterns of classical, discrete, decohered, membrane-bound "mind-dust".
I don't know which conjecture will be harder experimentally to test: the effective classicality of neurons (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6) or the unitary sentience of other organic mind-brains via reversible thalamic bridges. Both classes of procedure pose formidable technical challenges. As you know, I'm a sceptic about the former but not the latter!
Joshua, is it possible that your other cerebral hemisphere is a p-zombie, so to speak? On the standard neuroscience story, your corpus callosom allows your cerebral hemispheres mutually to communicate. But how does your left-brain neocortex, say, solve the Problem Of Other Sentient Hemispheres?
How we understand – and solve - the phenomenal binding problem is critical.
Jorge, yes, raising the question of Other Minds in the case of non-human animal sentience can be ethically catastrophic. Many meat-eaters today would love nothing better than to turn the question of non-human consciousness into some sort of inscrutable metaphysical mystery. In my view, there is neither more nor less ground for believing that a pig is a conscious subject of experience than Einstein.
Ricardo, there is indeed a sense in which sowing sceptical doubt in the minds of other people is ethically and intellectually irresponsible. (no disrespect to the Quora questioner. He clearly wasn't intending to be mischievous.) Fortunately, later this century the ancient sceptical worry can potentially be banished. If you're in any doubt about the sentience of others, “mind-meld” to find out. The outcome of the procedure will be different if, say, you're merely having a lucid dream or game-playing in immersive VR.
* * *
Marc, I agree that most forms of radical scepticism - and especially solipsism - are sterile. Sometimes, they are morally harmful. Two complications. Although talk of p-zombies might be considered a pointless sceptical worry, such thought-experiments can instead be treated as highlighting an immense intellectual scandal. Mainstream science has no explanation of why we aren't p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies. It's unclear how much of what currently passes for knowledge will survive a solution to the mysteries of consciousness.
Second, although radical scepticism is mostly a waste of time, it's unsettling to consider which philosophical position of classical antiquity came closest to being correct. Probably scepticism. Classical philosophers among who doubted most of what then passed for knowledge have been vindicated. Let's hope we're not in the same boat today. Such scepticism normally seems remote - at least so long as one doesn't take the experimental method too seriously and start exploring consciousness-altering drugs. But I fear the foundations of science may be built on sand.
Jorge, believing that human but not nonhuman animals are conscious is a case of motivated cognition at its worst. Of course, pointing out that the author of a study claiming that, for example, smoking cigarettes doesn't cause cancer is funded by the tobacco industry doesn't by itself refute the claim. The line between justifiably drawing attention to sources confounding bias and unjustified ad hominem attacks isn't always clear. However, if a meat-eater or vivisector claims that nonhuman animals can't suffer pain, or experience only negligible distress, then one knows not to expect an impartial exploration of the issues.
* * *
[Brian writes] "Consciousness realist"?! Some of our assumptions are so basic one doesn't normally even trouble to name them. The gulf between writers who regard consciousness as fundamental (either ontologically or epistemologically or both) and consciousness irrealists is immense. What's it like to be Brian or Daniel Dennett, I sometimes wonder (seriously).
* * *
Tim, we can agree that predictions about the nature of full-spectrum superintelligence are hazardous. But presumably full-spectrum superintelligence won't entertain a false metaphysics of personal identity. The Borg don't just have different values from traditional humans; they know more than we do. The Borg's version of a Decision-Theoretic FAQ differs from a metaphysical individualist's conception of a Decision-Theoretic FAQ. Of course, this is just a colourful way of putting it. But in a future world of widespread or ubiquitous mind-melding, our conception of decision-theoretic rationality will change too. The Hogan twins have a different conception of Prisoner's Dilemma than the rest of us. Naturally, we don't know if the future really belongs to full-spectrum superintelligences. Some conceptions of posthuman superintelligence resemble a solitary Super-Asperger more than the hyper-social intelligence sketched here.
What I'm arguing is that decision theory as we understand it today has built-in metaphysical assumptions that can be challenged. Thus in a Prisoner's Dilemma scenario, it is supposedly rational to defect (whether or not it's moral to defect) But in such a scenario, it's neither rational nor moral for (a cognitive generalisation of) mirror-touch synaesthetes to defect. Defecting would be akin to harming oneself. Naturally, most of us aren't (a cognitive generalisation of) mirror-touch synaesthetes. But it's unclear why this epistemological limitation on our part should have metaphysical or decision-theoretic consequences. Full-spectrum superintelligences could presumably access all possible first-person perspectives and act accordingly.
* * *
Both Bill Gates (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_%26_Melinda_Gates_Foundation) and the widow who leaves her fortune to her cat are acting altruistically. But only Bill Gates is an effective altruist. The cost-benefit analysis of effective altruism has little to do with the empathising impulse that prompted one to (try to be) an altruist in the first instance. Indeed, from Bentham (almost certainly an Asperger) to Bill Gates, perhaps most effective altruists don't have a “naturally” empathetic cognitive style. It's no coincidence that most utilitarians tend to be male hyper-systematisers.
* * *
Tim, yes, moral (anti-)realism is a separate question from the objective reality of first person-experience. On the face of it, cheating Hume's guillotine and deriving an "ought” from an "is" is logically impossible. However, for reasons we simply don't understand, a normative aspect is built into the very nature of some first-person states, e.g. I-ought-not-to-be-in-this-dreadful-agony. If you are the victim of unbearable agony or despair, the badness of such states is not an "open question". Combine the normative aspect of such first-person states with the scientific world-picture, i.e. no here-and-nows are special or ontologically privileged. Insofar as suffering is bad for me, it's bad for sentient beings anywhere. Here we have the germ of a theory of universal (dis)value. In short, moral realism can't simply be dismissed out of hand.
Either way, the beauty of a Decision Theoretic FAQ written “from the point of view of the universe” - or the Borg – is that it needn't invoke the language of morals at all.
* * *
Is competitive male altruism our best hope for the future?
("For men, online generosity is a competition")
* * *
There is a gaping wound at the heart of the effective altruist (EA) movement. On the one hand, Peter Singer has perhaps done more than any person alive to promote the interests of non-human animals. Important strands of the EA movement give Sentience Politics in broadest sense a central role. (cf. http://sentience-politics.org/) On the other hand, Toby Ord, founder of the admirable "Giving What We Can" (cf. https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/) takes seriously the (to my mind transparently self-serving) “Logic of the Larder” argument:
Katja Grace argues at some length EA's shouldn't even be vegetarian. (cf. https://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/when-should-an-effective-altruist-be-vegetarian/)
MIRI's Eliezer Yudkowsky doesn't even believe nonhuman animals (or human babies) are conscious – which would make the whole question moot.
EA is about effective outcomes, not purity of motivation. No doubt cynics can paint a story of competitive male dominance behaviour, costly signalling, autistic hyper-systematising, you name it – but that’s not the point. If we’re going to build a world where all sentient beings can flourish, then we’ll have to work with the grain of human nature. I’m less worried by purity of motives than the need to hammer out some kind of consensus – or rather, workable compromise - on desirable outcomes. A core statement of principles we all sign up to also reduces the likelihood of the EA “brand” being hijacked. After all, religious fundamentalists can argue – in good faith – that saving souls from eternal damnation is the ultimate EA. In the context of their conceptual scheme, they are correct.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Giving_Pledge Kerry, from the potlatch to the world's billionaires and their giving pledge, we see displays of competitive male altruism, not praise for the widow's mite. But the darker side of human nature - or rather, characteristically male nature - can be harnessed to do good. I hope!
Katja, I very hope an EA consensus can be hammered out soon. Invoking the in vitro meat revolution offers one way forward. But how much longer until the death factories are shut and outlawed?
* * *
Katja, some acts of omission are morally indistinguishable from acts of commission. If you stumble across a toddler drowning in a shallow pond, then simply walking by is as bad as if you'd pushed the child into the water yourself. But for sure, other "acts of omission" are more complex, nuanced and ambiguous.
However, one reason for not focusing on the "grey zone" of moral ambiguity here is that the choice with meat-eating is so uncomplicated. By choosing to buy, say, a hamburger over a veggieburger, one is actively paying for another sentient being to be harmed - i.e. it's the opposite of altruism, effective or otherwise. One isn't wrestling with some knotty ethical dilemma, or calculating the opportunity-cost of the purchase: could I do more good donating to a human or non-human animal charity? Nor is it a case of worrying about the risk of indirectly paying for exploitation at several times removed [e.g. How do I know that exploitative child-labour wasn't involved at some stage in the production of this item? Finding out could be time-consuming.]
Despite holding strict veganism as the ideal, IMO one can make an EA case being merely vegetarian or quasi-vegan while supporting the closure of factory-farms and slaughterhouses. If one becomes a quasi-vegan, how strict or lax should one be? (etc) Do I enjoy optimal health on a vegan, quasi-vegan or vegetarian diet - or does it make no difference? (etc). But whether or not EAs should be vegetarian or meat-eaters doesn't deserve to be dignified with the term "Moral Dilemma". Please do reconsider, Katja!
* * *
A self-avowed psychopath, Charlie Dermot, ("Student of Law, Philosopher. Nihilist, Student of Law, Diagnosed Psychopath, Philosopher") has responded to my Quora post. Replying to psychopaths can be challenging, though less so than responding to the morally apathetic.
What's Wrong with "humane" meat?
For reasons we do not understand, the pain-pleasure-axis discloses the world's inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Agony and despair are self-intimatingly bad for the victim. Science offers our best account of the natural world: I am not ontologically special or privileged. Insofar as agony and despair are bad for me, such states are bad for anyone, anywhere, regardless of race or species. To which the amoralist or sociopath may respond: "Sure, your agony and despair are bad for you. But they aren't bad for me. Why should I care?" Yet such an epistemological limitation, i.e. most other first-person facts aren’t cognitively accessible to us, shouldn't be confused with a metaphysical truth about the world. Thus if one were a superintelligence with perfect God-like knowledge of all the first-person as well as the third-person facts, then one would act accordingly, i.e. not cruelly or callously. Indeed, when “mind-melding” technologies (e.g. reversible thalamic bridges) become routinely available, behaviour that is cruel or callous to one’s fellow subjects of experience may be recognised not just as immoral but irrational – and for the same reason that two mirror-touch synaesthetes today can’t have a fist-fight: hurting the other party would be like hurting oneself. Compare someone who steals from their own pension fund: such behaviour isn’t so much super-sociopathic as irrational. In a wider evolutionary context, natural selection has warped our perception of the natural world (and our conception of personal identity) in fitness-enhancing ways: the egocentric illusion is a genetically adaptive lie. Clinically diagnosed sociopaths experience the egocentric illusion in its most extreme form; but sociopathy is dimensional rather than categorical. We all are all prone to this cognitive limitation to some extent.
Less philosophically and more practically: pigs are a sentient and sapient as prelinguistic toddlers. They deserve to be cared for with equal love and respect.
Stimulating the relevant part of your cortex can make literally everything seem hysterically funny.
But an inherent funniness is not an intrinsic property of objects in the mind-independent world. By analogy, a minority of psychopaths find images of death and destruction in their world-simulations beautiful and emotionally satisfying - just as neurotypicals can enjoy a Hollywood disaster movie. Yet there is nothing beautiful and emotionally satisfying about undergoing agony and despair. More generally, what's needed is a criterion of representational adequacy for first-person and third-person facts alike. Naively, one might imagine that one can find beautiful the first-person experience of agony and despair. However, this supposition just shows one hasn't adequately grasped the nature of the first-person facts in question. A disvaluable aspect is built into the nature of agony and despair itself. Presumably a full-spectrum superintelligence will not be prey to such a cognitive limitation.
...Well, just as people with congenital analgesia cannot properly imagine physical pain, psychopaths cannot fully imagine the full dimensions of pain's affective component. Testosterone doesn't just functionally antagonise pro-social oxytocin; it's also a powerful painkiller. Short of undergoing the experience of severe pain in the way a neurotypical experiences pain, its nature will remain inaccessible to you. Of course, simply having a "normal" understanding of phenomenal pain doesn't guarantee fully pro-social behaviour. My toothache matters more than someone else's toothache. But this perception on my part simply reveals my intellectual limitations.
OK, well, do you care about whether (a) your namesake who wakes up tomorrow is tortured and killed? (b) your elderly namesake thirty years hence is tortured and killed?
In other words, I'm trying to find out whether you are psychopathically disposed towards all here-and-nows beyond this one, or instead believe that there are other regions of space-time that should not be the subject of disvaluable experience.
Our conceptual scheme presupposes an enduring metaphysical ego. Strictly, however, there is no such beast. Assuming you recognise the incoherence of an enduring metaphysical ego, I'm trying to probe whether you still believe that your namesake who wakes up tomorrow doesn't deserve to be tortured and killed. In other words, should you behave altruistically towards (some) other subjects of experience, or are you a "super-sociopath" who cares only about the well-being of the here-and-now?
Just as someone who is congenitally colour-blind can't adequately understand the nature of phenomenal colour, likewise a psychopath [or person with congenital analgesia] can't adequately understand the nature of torture and why torture matters. The congenitally colour-blind person may protest that thanks to e.g. his spectroscopic prosthesis he can discriminate electromagnetic frequencies as well as his normal peers; therefore he understands colour. Likewise the psychopath/congenital analgesic may claim to have an adequate functional understanding of torture. However, in both cases, the nature of the experience in question is cognitively closed to the subject - or at least, closed barring futuristic neurological intervention. Some forms of ignorance are literally hardwired.
* * *
Empathy and Congenital Analgesia
("Can We Share a Pain We Never Felt? Neural Correlates of Empathy in Patients with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain")
Will posthuman superintelligence more closely resemble super-Aspergers or Super-Empaths?
("Boston Doctor Physically Feels What His Patients Feel")
[on the future of work]
What is the future of work and death?
The End of Work and Death?
Sad? Samelu, well, that rather depends on whether we become malaise-ridden drones or superhappy stakhanovites:
What Is Transhumanism?
The Three Supers of Transhumanism (video)
("What Is Transhumanism? The Three Supers with David Pearce)
Is a Triple S civilisation technically feasible? Almost certainly. Is it ethically desirable, Yes, IMO. Will it happen? On balance, yes I think, though futurology has a poor track-record. Where scientific prophecy risks shading into millennial delusion is the conviction that the transition will happen in one's lifetime in an apocalyptic Technological Singularity.
For more on each of the three supers, perhaps see:
on phasing out the biology of suffering.
And for folk who don't think they're going to make it, Alcor: http://www.alcor.org/
Information can be hard to destroy, as folk who imagine that they've safely reformatted their hard drive have discovered to their cost.
Until we conquer aging, should cryonics be opt-out or opt-in?
Should humans try to emulate sea anemones or mayflies?
("The creature with the key to immortality?")
* * *
Mike, a commitment to the well-being of all sentience does not make one a Buddhist. Nor does a refusal to harm other sentient beings make one a Jain. Utopian dreamers throughout history across history have imagined a world without suffering. More recently, the authors of the Transhumanist Declaration include libertarians, ethical pluralists, virtue theorists, deontologists, and utilitarians. What's new isn't some revolutionary ethic, but rather the effective technical means to put an ancient ethic into practice.
More recently, let's recall one of the other founders of the contemporary transhumanist movement, FM-2030, was a lifelong vegetarian. "I would not eat anything that had a mother":
* * *
Mike, it's easy to confuse an implementation detail of traditional biological life with a universal feature of life. A minority of utopian dreamers throughout history have imagined a world without suffering. Until humans mastered their own genetic source-code, this vision remained a pipe-dream. However, it's now possible to sketch - at least in outline - what creating a living world without suffering would technically entail. Maybe it will transpire there is some irreplaceable functional role played by the "raw feels" of physical or mental pain. Maybe we'll opt to conserve the biology of suffering and malaise indefinitely. Either way, I hope we can all do our tiny bit to make the world a better place.
* * *
Yes, the voluntary nature of any project to reduce - or indeed to phase out altogether - the biology of suffering deserves to be stressed emphatically time and again. Stressing freedom of choice spikes many guns. (Almost) no one is urging coercive happiness. Perhaps I don't do enough to separate my (very!) tentative prediction that humans are going to phase out all experience below hedonic zero throughout the living world from purely moral advocacy of abolishing the biology of involuntary suffering.
The big complication to the issue of choice is the status of our future children. When the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range - and approximate hedonic set-points - can be genetically pre-selected by prospective parents, what should be the "default settings" we choose?
Does anyone enjoy suffering?
No happy person seeks out suicidal despair or unbearable agony, just as - on a more mundane level - no one is who is bored seeks to become more bored. There isn't an alien civilisation somewhere in the universe with an inverted pleasure-pain axis.
However, we can all point to seeming counter-examples to the pleasure principle.
Thus the existence of, say, masochists, or "macho" warriors who display their indifference to pain, or simply folk who enjoy melancholy music or hot curries (etc) illustrates that the full story is much more complicated.
In each example of these "composite" states of mind, I'd argue that the painful experience actually has a rewarding aspect. Masochists, for example, enjoy the intensely rewarding endogenous opioids released by stimuli that would otherwise be painful or unpleasantly humiliating.
But either way, we don't want to tie the abolitionist project to some strict version of psychological hedonism. A commonplace observation about our innate preference for occupying one end of the pleasure-pain axis over the other is enough.
* * *
Can one rationalise in Hell? The ability of most linguistically competent humans to rationalise suffering, at least to some extent, is a blessing. But in an era when biotech promises to make the biology of suffering optional, our rationalising impulse is an obstacle to progress. This is true of radical antiaging research too - though bioscientists have a better understanding of what it would take to phase our suffering than senescence.
* * *
Nick is quoted in this week's New Scientist, half-hidden alas behind a paywall:
"I think we should try to treat all sentient creatures compassionately, whether they are digital or not". (Nick Bostrom)
All transhumanists support a global transition to in vitro meat.
The human universe: Could we become gods?
Human and nonhuman animals flourish best when neither imprisoned nor wild but free-living. If someone's nonhuman animal companion is flourishing, should we worry about some of the more "philosophical" issues involved in the relationship? IMO, we have many more urgent priorities.
* * *
David, in a post-CRISPR world animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss, you can savour victories all the more. Better still, a hedonic floor higher than today's hedonic ceiling guarantees that even life's darkest depths never cease to feel worthwhile. Further, phasing out the molecular signature of boredom guarantees that life can never cease to be exhilarating - if we choose excitement and adventure over meditative bliss. Either way, information-sensitive gradients of fascination can allow critical insight to be retained. However, the morally important point here is surely that your right to suffer is a radically different idea from some notional right to perpetuate involuntary suffering in others. I hope on reflection you'll agree.
* * *
Drawbacks? Suppose that the transhumanist vision of a “Triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness really is technically and sociological credible. What could be the downside? Timescales – in my view. Like telling someone that science will cure aging after you're dead, or telling a depressive that our descendants will enjoy lives animated by gradients of bliss, the news isn't entirely heart-warming. Of course throughout history, successful prophets have almost always located salvation (or doom) within the plausible lifetimes of their audience. The transhumanist movement is no exception. I still believe a “Triple S” super-civilisation is ethically worth striving for – I'm just not convinced any of us will live to see it.
On a brighter note, perhaps the joker in the pack here is cryonics. As various criminals who reformatted their hard disks have discovered to their cost, permanently erasing information isn't as quite easy as one might assume.
* * *
Should we aim for success rather than happiness? Terrence, could you possibly clarify your conception of "success"? There is a benign sense of the term in which I agree with you. Alas when many contemporary humans use the term, they have in mind the zero-sum games that entail inflicting loss on others: not a transhumanist civilisation but an extension of the African savannah.
As a negative utilitarian, I'm personally sympathetic to Popper: our overriding ethical obligation should be to minimise suffering, not maximise happiness.
By contrast, a classical utilitarian ethic has the disguised apocalyptic implication that we should launch a utilitronium shockwave - not quite what its originators had in mind!
Either way, the idea that posthumans (and ideally transhumans) will be animated by gradients of superhuman well-being shouldn't be seen as inherently utilitarian. (cf. Superhappiness ) Compare how mood-elevating drugs reverse the learned helplessness and behavioural despair associated with depression. Other things being equal, (super-)happiness is a strategy for "winners", low mood is for losers. The happiest people today are typically also the most highly motivated - though dopaminergic motivation and mu opioidergic hedonic tone are, as neuroscientists say, doubly dissociable.
Is there a distinctively transhumanist position here?
Well, I think most transhumanists would agree that we should all, ideally, have the ability to set the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range, and our own hedonic set-point - and also choose whether to be hyper-motivated or to enjoy contemplative bliss. This will entail full mastery of our reward circuitry. Let’s hope biotechnology can deliver soon.
* * *
What is transhumanism? Transhumanists support using technology to overcome our biological limitations. In principle, we can create a "Triple S" civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness.
The transhumanist movement has many different strands. For example, some transhumanists believe posthuman superintelligence will be our biological descendants; others foresee a Kurzweilian fusion of humans and machines; and others (e.g. the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and Nick Bostrom's FHI) believe the future lies with machine superintelligence. Among transhumanists who focus on radical life extension, some favour "mind uploading"; others promote Aubrey de Grey's biologically-based SENS strategy; and others support cryonics, notably Alcor - currently run by one of the pioneers of the modern transhumanist movement, Max More. My own work focuses on the use of biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering.
How do all the pieces of the transhumanist jigsaw fit together? Well, that's complicated. But the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) sets out some core principles on what (I hope) unites us:
[on the putative evils of abolitionism]
We see spawn of Beelzebub make his entry around 9.15:
TRANSHUMANIST AGENDA: Eliminate Suffering?
This must surely be the first Christian video to discuss the COMT gene. The article that exercised the fundamentalists was apparently:
("Top Five Reasons Transhumanism Can Eliminate Suffering")
"What is the good of writing beautiful things about suffering? ...It means nothing, nothing! When you are going through it, then you know the worthlessness of all this eloquence."
[St Therese when refused pain medication; see Saint Therese of Lisieux by Monica Furlong (pub. Virago Pantheon Pioneers, 1987)]
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." (Matthew 7:15)
http://prophecylunch.com/what-is-transhumanism-the-3-supers-with-david-pearce/" target="_blank">The Three Supers
("What is Transhumanism? – The 3 Supers with David Pearce")
* * *
Does Jesus or Nietzsche have a stronger claim to being a proto-transhumanist?
("Why Christians Should Embrace Transhumanism")
In science and (ideally) transhumanist-inspired philosophy, one aims to be rigorous, hyper-critical and intolerant of woolly-mindedness. Traditional theology, whether of the Abrahamic religions or the traditions of the Indian sub-continent, strikes scientific rationalists as absurd. But if carried to completion, the transhumanist project can deliver everything that religious people have wanted and more.
* * *
Marija, an important point, yes, "predation" not "predators" - otherwise one may be pilloried (by meat eaters!) for proposing a campaign of mass genocide. [I wish I'd been firmer last year when io9's clickbait-hungry headline writer put an inflammatory headline for their otherwise innocuous (I thought) interview:
Are the upper and lower bounds of our hedonic range best chosen by natural selection or biotechnology?
Review the Future DP interview
("The Future of Suffering")
FaceLikeTheSun, first, sorry for jargon. By "smart angel”, I just meant that mastery of our genetic code means that future parents will be able to have children who are temperamentally more saintly, as well as more intelligent, than contemporary humans. For evolutionary reasons, anyone in the ancestral environment predisposed to "love thy neighbour as thyself" would rapidly remove his or her DNA from the gene pool.
Where does the desire to eliminate suffering come from? In the case of one's own suffering, the answer is self-intimating. Unless born with congenital analgesia, one removes one's hand from the fire. But science also teaches us that the egocentric illusion is a genetically adaptive lie. If suffering is bad for me, then it's bad for any sentient being, anywhere. I'm not special.
Most scientists today are secularists. Yet science aspires to an impartial “God's-eye view”. A posthuman superintelligence who could notionally access all first-person perspectives would presumably act accordingly. Perhaps imagine a generalisation of mirror-touch synaesthesia:
(“Study: People Literally Feel Pain of Others”)
God-like benevolence comes more easily if you can imagine another agent's perspective as vividly as your own. Of course, darker scenarios are conceivable too.
The extinction of humanity? Well, perhaps. But only in the sense of a chrysalis metamorphosing into a butterfly, not Armageddon.
Most writers will soon be forgotten! But even if you assume that you'll never be more than a footnote in history, authors should think long and hard about how they might be misunderstood - just in case. David Benatar (“Better Never To have Been”), for example, advocates human extinction though voluntary human childlessness. But what if someone with access to futuristic WMD reads Benatar's text and recognises that selection pressure if nothing else ensures anti-natalism will fail? That said, it would be a mistake to tie an abolitionist ethic to plotting Armageddon. Most of the Buddhists of my acquaintance are quite docile. Phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering is (IMO) more likely to mitigate existential and global catastrophic risk than promote death and destruction.
* * *
Critique of Brave New World
Thanks guys. Carlos, radical enrichment of our reward circuitry and set-point recalibration isn't an alternative to Maslow - or countless other goals we may be striving for. Performed intelligently, it's complementary. Yes, urging mega-caution in using biotechnology to choose hedonic range and hedonic set-points is (very) wise. However, neither somatic nor germline changes need be irreversible. In the purely technical sense, nothing would stop us reverting to genes / allelic combinations predisposing to suffering in all its guises. If prospective parents want to "play safe" - a relative term for untested genetic experiments like sexual reproduction - preimplantation genetic screening is the cautious, bioconservative option. In the long run, however, rewriting the genome of human and nonhuman animals alike may be the only way to secure the well-being of all future sentience.
* * *
Can reckless genetic experimentation be replaced with responsible germline editing?
("Future of human gene editing to be decided at landmark summit")
Alas pleas for a moratorium on sexual reproduction are likely to go unheeded.
Thankfully, there's no evidence that sentient beings can be created at different levels of computational abstraction. Yet suppose digital sentience were feasible. Just as it's almost impossible to imagine reverting to surgery without anaesthesia, what is the likelihood that intelligent agents will conquer pain and suffering, and subsequently decide to create such horrors in the guise of an ancestor simulation? An ancestor simulation might naively sound cool. Recreating Auschwitz would be obscene. Yet running the former would entail the latter. Such behaviour doesn't sound the likely action of posthuman superintelligence so much as an ignorant human anti-Semite. The behaviour of posthumans may be incomprehensible to us; but it's safe to say they won't be stupid.
* * *
“May all that hath life be delivered from suffering” said Gautama Buddha. Biotech promises to turn utopian dreaming into a long-term policy option. Christopher, could you clarify? In what sense must a world without the biology of involuntary suffering be a "most horrifying dystopia"? If I want to undergo suffering myself, then fair enough. But when biotech makes suffering of any kind technically optional, do I have the right to force its nasty “raw feels” on others? If so, for how long, how much and enforced by what means?
Yes, you're right, some happy people are callous. Others are empathetic. ("It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.” - W. Somerset Maugham) For an extreme example of both subjective well-being and love for others, perhaps compare empathetic euphoriants like the "hug drug” MDMA.
Are there pitfalls? Of course! What's critical to ensuring high functioning, pro-social well-being is preserving “informational sensitivity” to good and bad stimuli rather than being uniformly blissful. Hence the advantages are raising heritable hedonic set-points world-wide – of being constitutionally blissful but not “blissed out”.
* * *
The question of whether we will ever abolish suffering is different from the question of whether we will ever abolish experience below hedonic zero. The boundary between "mere" pain or malaise and outright suffering is not well defined. Hedonic zero, on the other hand, really does seem to mark a natural watershed. * * *
("New Study Shows MDMA Can Help Create More Meaningful Relationships")
The problem is sustainability. A disproportionate number of couples argue and split 48 hours afterwards in the throes of the post-MDMA serotonin dip. The solution, IMO, is not a blanket campaign of "Just Say No". Rather, what's needed is research into safe, sustainable empathogens and gene-therapies that promote the MDMA "magic" minus the drug-induced side-effects.
Less pain, less empathy? But compare empathogenic euphoriants such as the "hug drug" MDMA
("Dulling pain may also reduce empathy")
Can we create superhuman volition to match?
("The one thing that makes peoples’ lives better")
Alas power drugs have pitfalls:
('Pilot's Salt': The Third Reich Kept Its Soldiers Alert With Meth")
Pervitin was also "the ideal war drug".
* * *
Christopher, perhaps recall that the goal of ending suffering is shared by some of the poorest people in the world. A concern for the well-being of all sentience is not the prerogative of rich white Westerners. Is suffering necessary? Well, discovery of the functional indispensability of the nasty “raw feels” of suffering to some cognitive tasks would be a profound result that would shake the foundations of computer science to its core.
Silicon (etc) robots don't need to suffer. Why should their organic counterparts? Life animated by gradients of intelligent well-being offers a potentially more civilised alternative to life animated by misery and malaise. But no one is going to force you to be happy!
Even with today's genome, the quality of life of people born with the hedonic highest set-points tends to be hugely richer than their depressive counterparts. Recall what's being proposed isn't the abolition of homoeostatic mechanisms but rather the recalibration of hedonic set-points. Arrogance? Maybe. If famine breaks out in sub-Saharan Africa, what's the more humble response? Philosophising about the inscrutable wisdom of Providence and the hubris of defying Mother Nature? Or organising famine relief and help with family planning? The same principle is at stake with members of other species as members of other races – with the difference that sentient beings with the intellectual capacities of human toddlers can't devise technologies of fertility regulation. Either way, no one is proposing rule by philosopher kings. Rather, a small minority of theorists are exploring what a world without the biology of involuntary suffering might entail in the wake of the biotech revolution. Such proposals may well never be implemented; but no longer can it be claimed: There Is No Alternative.
* * *
Are some states of matter and energy intrinsically (dis)valuable? Orthodox scientific materialism would say no. Here my views are idiosyncratic. The world may be formally described by the equations of physics, (cf. https://www.physicalism.com) But what “breathes fire into” the equations may turn out to be radically at variance with our naïve materialist intuitions.
* * *
Whether inducing SCN9A nonsense mutations to create congenital analgesia, or wireheading, or perpetual mu opioid agonist activation of our twin "hedonic hotspots" (etc), it's not technically hard to create consciousness without physical or mental pain. The challenge is to do so in ways that don't compromise critical insight and social responsibility.
* * *
Voice-activated endogenous opioid production? I wouldn't say no. Freedom of expression should be a basic human right:
("Activating genes on demand")
Let there be light...
("Light—not pain-killing drugs—used to activate brain's opioid receptors")
And a leavening of bliss
("Synthesis of Morphinan Alkaloids in Saccharomyces cerevisiae")
* * *
Matt, "zombification" is presumably desirable only for the bad stuff. We'll want to keep the "raw feels" of good emotions - and massively amplify, purify and enrich them! Of course, switching off the nasty "raw feels" of pain can be done today with a nonsense mutation of the SCN9a gene, for example. But such nonsense mutations also eliminate the function of nociception, forcing victims to lead "cotton wool" lives. A stopgap before outright abolition would be pre-selecting benign variants of SCN9A (or a handful of other genes) and giving our future children the enviably low pain-sensitivity of the top 0.1 percent of the population today who don't have congenital analgesia. For a small minority of our contemporaries, phenomenal pain really is never more than a useful signalling mechanism and occasional marginal inconvenience. In the long run, however, literally everything nasty and mundane can be off-loaded onto smart prostheses.
* * *
Travis, first, apologies. At a time when humans are systematically hurting, harming and killing billions of sentient beings each year in our factory farms and slaughterhouses, exploring the feasibility of compassionately run ecosystems in tomorrow's wildlife parks will come across as vaguely fanciful. But yes, if we judge it ethically desirable to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering in the living world, then the same interventions available to humans can be used to help other free-living and domestic vertebrates too. In principle, biotech can 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. In the longer term, the scope of our benevolence could be extended across the phylogenetic tree.
For a costed case-study of what could be done right now, perhaps see:
* * *
Without universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling, the horrors of depression will persist indefinitely:
("First robust genetic links to depression emerge")
Timo, debate on the ethics of compassionate stewardship often gets derailed right from the outset by a knee-jerk response that says it's technically impossible. Bite your tongue while critics explain the thermodynamics of a food chain and ridicule ecologically illiterate philosophers. Of course, the elephant case-study you cite relies on back-of-an-envelope financial calculations rather than being accurately costed. And any serious feasibility study would need to be conducted by professional ecologists with a cross-disciplinary team of specialists - including one speciality that doesn't yet exist, elephant orthodontics. But for all these pitfalls and caveats, I know of no technical reason why free-living elephants and higher vertebrates in tomorrow's wildlife parks can't truly flourish throughout life with adequate healthcare, nutrition, fertility regulation, obstetric and geriatric care - not unlike members of contemporary Homo sapiens. In short, the real debate now should be about ethics and responsibly - followed (I hope) by action.
* * *
Could CRISPR-based "gene drives” phase out suffering in free-living nonhuman animals more readily than in free-living humans?
* * *
Kevin, I guess there are two questions here 1) Is it ethically desirable to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering? 2) Is it technically feasible? A wide range of ethical traditions from Buddhism to utilitarianism would broadly say “yes” to (1) – although the Noble Eightfold Path won't abolish the horrors of the food chain, and Bethnamite socio-political reform won't recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. In the wake of the biotech revolution, I think we can discern at least in outline how the answer to (2) is “yes” too - though any imminent Hundred Year Plan is sociologically unrealistic. Recall that within the next few decades, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance, micro-management and control. Libertarians are more likely to worry about the human privacy implications of a global panopticon than the opportunities for compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world. Yet if we judge it ethically desirable to purge marine ecosystems of suffering later this century and beyond, then we won't fail because we run out of computational resources, or because our genome-editing tools prove unequal to the challenge, or because our marine nanobots exhaust their energy supplies (etc). In terms of fail-safe mechanisms, yes, one disastrous back-mutation might occur - but not simultaneously half-a-dozen, or at least only with vanishingly small likelihood. If involuntary suffering still exists on Earth a few centuries from now, its persistence won't be because its abolition was too difficult, but rather because our superintelligent successors have chosen – for reasons opaque to us – to preserve it.
Martyn, the scope for things going horribly wrong is one reason I'd urge upholding legal guarantees on the sanctity of life - not because I hold ontologically extravagant views on the existence of rights, but because humans can't be trusted...
* * *
Mike, if we believe in phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering, then the challenges you mention are technical problems with technical solutions. Levels of competitive dominance behaviour are amenable to fine-grained control via testosterone-oxytocin tweaking in human and nonhuman animals alike. For sure, if we opt to retain competitive status-seeking and zero sum games, then winning is more fun than losing. Yet whether losing entails suffering depends on the lower bounds of one's hedonic range. Default hedonic tone in hyperthymics need never fall below zero.
“Nannying” sounds bad to the libertarian ear. But human toddlers need to be intermittently “nannied” i.e. cared for, because they can't adequately care for themselves. The same is true of sentient beings with similar cognitive limitations.
A Herculean challenge? Intuitively, yes. But presumably compassionate stewardship of tomorrow's wildlife parks would in large part be computationally offloaded to IT.
What if humanity - or rather posthuman superintelligence - goes extinct? Yes, in our absence life would revert to the brutal Darwinian horror story it's been to date. This is one good reason to avoid wiping ourselves out.
* * *
Alberto, a lion who eats in vitro meat doesn't cease to be lion any more than a human who eats in vitro meat creases to be a human. Just as the civilising process of humans will be aided by some genetic tweaking, the same is true of lions. Of course, a bioconservative or species essentialist may claim that genetically enhanced humans will no longer be “truly” human when we display a different behavioural phenotype from our hunter-gatherer forebears. To which we might reply, so what? To advocate our becoming transhuman is not to advocate genocide. Nor is advocacy of extending the civilising process across the phylogenetic tree.
If you believed in working toward the well-being of all sentience, what alternative long-term policy initiatives would you favour?
(cf. http://robertwiblin.com/2010/01/21/just-destroy-nature/ )
* * *
Should compassionate interventions in Nature be piecemeal or systematic?
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3014468/A-mother-never-forgets-Elephant-spends-11-hours-desperately-trying-pull-baby-free-muddy-villagers-lend-helping-hand.html ("A mother never forgets: Elephant spends 11 hours desperately trying to pull her baby free from muddy well – before villagers lend her a helping hand")
Large long-lived vertebrates fall at the "easy" end of the spectrum of compassionate stewardship:
Will cross-species fertility regulation underpin our compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world?
("Elephant Contraception? How a Vaccine is Replacing Sharpshooters")
Should we breed human and nonhuman animals to be happy and free-living?
("This Scientist Might End Animal Cruelty—Unless GMO Hardliners Stop Him")
* * *
"Ad hoc"? Nick, effective altruism demands a hyper-systematising, "autistic" mind-set far removed from tender-minded empathy for the suffering of another sentient being that made one an ethical agent in the first instance. For example, it's winter and lots of herbivores are starving. The compassionate-minded but self-defeating thing to do is simply to organise famine relief. The outcome of such good intentions will be a population explosion in the spring - and thus even more misery and starvation than if we'd done nothing. Or to use another example, an obligate carnivore is badly injured, and we compassionately offer veterinary care - so the carnivore can live to kill another day. (cf. http://africageographic.com/blog/lioness-gored-by-buffalo-horn-lives-to-see-another-day/)
Such examples could be multiplied ad nauseam. In short, we need to focus on the big picture - heart-warming as elephant rescues may be...
* * *
Interview with David Pearce
What kinds of time-scale are credible? Until recently my own tentative chronology ran as follows. First use preimplantation genetic screening and then germ-line editing to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering in Homo sapiens. Mass-produce gourmet in vitro meat and shut down slaughterhouses and factory-farms. Use cross-species immunocontraception, advanced biotech and GPS-tracking to help and monitor large long-lived free-living vertebrates such as elephants. Finally - and this would take hundreds of years - help small, fast-reproducing vertebrates and marine invertebrates with net-enabled nanobots.
Sociologically, perhaps this chronology still makes sense. Yet sometimes a technical revolution makes nonsense of one's predictions. Maybe we’re on the brink of such a revolution. In principle, small teams of humans on a shoestring budget could swiftly and dramatically reduce the suffering of small fast-reproducing vertebrates and invertebrates with CRISPR-based "gene drives" – not in centuries but in years.
Cynics and pessimists would say that gene drives are more likely to be used for “entomological warfare” waged against other humans for than compassionate stewardship of the biosphere. Mankind’s track record to date suggests they are right. But contra Richard Dawkins, we can no long claim: There Is No Alternative ("It must be so." Richard Dawkins)
* * *
There is a technical sense in which genes are always "selfish" - even in a (currently hypothetical) post-Darwinian era of "unnatural" selection. However, all sorts of kindly traits maladaptive in the ancestral environment of adaptation become fitness-enhancing in an era when intelligent agents can choose the genetic source code of their offspring. Conversely, alleles and allelic combinations predisposing to subjective misery and malaise will (I suspect) be vulnerable to extinction. Good!
("Selfish genetic elements, genetic conflict, and evolutionary innovation")
[Does HI need a Trump?
"A Linguistic Analysis Of Donald Trump Shows Why People Like Him So Much"]
* * *
Is a world where sentient beings don't harm each other a utopia? Or simply a precondition of any civilisation worthy of the name? Muhammad is reported to have said "There is no man who kills [even] a sparrow or anything smaller, without its deserving it, but God will question him about it [on the judgement day]". One wishes some of his nominal followers would take this lesson to heart.
* * *
Christopher, there are empathetic as well as self-regarding forms of happiness, just as there are empathetic as well as self-regarding forms of suffering. With today's biology, empathy typically involves being touched by the miseries of others. In future, empathy can entail sharing their joys. Technology can deliver not just life animated by gradients of bliss, but also hyper-empathy, naturalised telepathy, mind-melding via reversible thalamic bridges, and more. Ayn Rand would be turning in her grave.
Can we imagine a world where EQ tests replace IQ tests?
("The science of empathy—and why some people have it less than others")
[on a Triple S civilisation]
"Mastery of our own genetic source code means we may be heading for a Triple S civilization – superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. To suppose we can glimpse the nature of post-human life is probably naïve. But I believe that phasing out the biology of experience below ‘hedonic zero’ is a precondition of any civilization worthy of the name". — David Pearce, co-Founder WTA on Future Day
Triple S Civilisation
The face of posthuman dignity? I was assured the editor wanted to symbolise the well-being of all sentience, but it transpired he had the Mad Hatter's Tea Party in mind.
* * *
One of the many human frailties biotech can fix is weakness of will - and also (to use the fancy philosopher's term) akrasia. Critics of radical superhappiness, on the other hand, often make mood and motivation sound as though they were inversely correlated:
* * *
Will post-humans commit thought-crimes?
("F-bombs notwithstanding, all languages skew toward happiness: Universal human bias for positive words")
"Thinking" is phenomenologically thin. Perhaps true understanding would entail thoughts like sunsets.
Should prospective parents opt for designer babies or today's reckless genetic experiments?
("Engineering the Perfect Baby") Should the right to unleash genetic malware on the world be weighed against the suffering of the victims?
* * *
GMO humans are an experiment with unknown risks:
("Genetically modified people. Human beings’ ancestors have routinely stolen genes from other species")
Should we aim to beautify basement reality or transcend it?
("State of the Art VR Guide")
Time to leave sordid basement reality behind?
(" I just tried HTC's insane virtual reality headset, and I'm convinced the world is about to change forever")
* * *
Could there ever be a great movie set in posthuman heaven?
("From Insurgent to Blade Runner: why is the future on film always so grim?")
* * *
Cosmic rescue missions? We need to establish the theoretical upper bounds to the scope of rational moral agency. If Darwinian life exists elsewhere within our cosmological horizon, then after phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering on Earth, intelligent moral agents would seem obliged to help. However, I'm (very) tentatively a "rare Earther", i.e., IMO we're probably alone in our Hubble volume (though not the multiverse). If so, then galactic radiation from a negative or negative-leading NU perspective would be ethically unwise - unless we are contemplating some sort of utilitronium shockwave.
Objective (dis)value? If (dis)value can be naturalised, then the pleasure pain-axis seems the only credible candidate. A Godlike superintelligence who could access all possible first-person and third-person perspectives would act accordingly, just as you would if your hand were in the fire, but on a cosmological scale.
Will "happiness fascism" leave us under the hedonic jackboot?
("The secret of happiness? Stop feeling bad about being unhappy")
Perhaps with a eugenic breeding program of genetically programmed bliss too.
The key to lifelong happiness been cracked?
("Does this woman hold the secret to lifelong happiness? US author reveals the key to contentment (and it starts by making your bed every morning")
Less hassle than rewriting the vertebrate genome.
How can we enhance the biology of happiness if we aren't prepared to measure it?
("Don’t Make Personal Growth a Utilitarian Goal")
The Value of Rationalisation Project?
("The Value of Suffering project")
Is it better to outlaw pain or pleasure?
("Theresa May wants to ban pleasure") Some laws need repealing...
("The Law of Pleasure, Can pleasure last?") Intracranial self-stimulation feels as rewarding after ten hours as after ten minutes; and life animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss can never pall.
* * *
René, it's still a bit puzzling (to me at any rate). Of the three "supers", all transhumanists would favour unlimited superlongevity and unlimited superintelligence - but not necessarily unlimited superhappiness. One reason perhaps is that today extreme subjective well-being is potentially dangerous to the individual and society alike. Compare the pathology of euphoric mania with its egotism, shedding of social responsibility and loss of critical insight. By contrast, the behavioural suppression typically associated with low mood is safer.
Should ghrelin function be curbed or promoted in larger mammals?
("Researchers find hormone that increases the sex drive of mice")
* * *
New directions in intelligence-augmentation strategies?
("Research Shows Intelligent People Stay Up Late, Do More Drugs, & Have More Sex")
And old-fashioned psychostimulants too, one suspects:
("Are smart drugs driving Silicon Valley")
Amnestics as the new nootropics? Probably not - but cognitive enhancement has countless pitfalls...
("Forgetting is the key to learning")
Will crowd-sourced nootropics lead to an intelligence explosion?
It's worth asking what exactly we're trying to enhance. The "autistic" component of general intelligence measured by IQ tests? Social cognition? Many so-called nootropics are really psychostimulants. Disentangling any nootropic action from their effects on mood, motivation and arousal can be a challenge. In our current ignorance, perhaps the best route to improved cognitive performance for many people is still optimal diet, exercise and sleep discipline. I'm also interested in the effects of prolonged breast-feeding in infancy. I suspect conventional "IQ" tests may underestimate its long-term cognitive benefits. Alas I've only anecdotal evidence to back this up: I'd like to see well-controlled trials.
The ethnic groups with the highest and lowest IQ scores in the USA also record the highest and lowest scores respectively for autism spectrum disorder - as might be predicted if IQ tests measured mind-blind autistic intelligence rather than general intelligence. There is no compelling evidence of innate differences in general intelligence between members of different ethnic groups in any measure of intelligence with ecological validity (cf. the "Machiavellian ape" hypothesis) - though the possibility of such differences can't be ruled out a priori.
...Social cognition is critical to life prospects. For example, if IQ were ecologically predictive of life success, then we would expect members of the ethnic group recording the highest IQ scores to have flourished in comparison to lower IQ scorers. Since IQ tests were invented, the opposite has happened. Thus Ashkenazi Jews were almost wiped out in Europe in the twentieth century; the population still hasn't recovered. Autistic intelligence as measured by IQ tests is best conceived as an important facet of general intelligence.
(cf. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661302019046 - "The extreme male brain theory of autism")
If "IQ" were ecologically predictive of life success, then we would expect women who record higher IQ scores successfully to raise more children than women with lower IQ scores. Since IQ tests were invented, the opposite has happened. Of course, confounding variables and other methodological problems abound; but this doesn't change my view that "IQ" is tendentiously labelled junk science.
* * *
Coffee: a mood-brightening, anti-aging, smart drug?
"The powers of a man's mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks." (Sir James Mackintosh)
http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-09-health-benefits-coffee.html ("The health benefits of coffee")
I hope Sir James is right...
(Thanks Konrad. Apparently women are responsible for 73% percent of exclamation marks used online! I've always been a bit testosterone-challenged!!!)
All too human...
("How bees showed a caffeine addiction")
Modafinil: "gorgeous temptress" or painted hooker?
("Students used to take drugs to get high. Now they take them to get higher grades")
See too https://www.modafinil.com – though someone seriously overestimates the size of BLTC's corporate war-chest:
Will the next breakthrough in psychiatric medicine derive from Big Pharma or the scientific counterculture?
('Our purity is above 99%': the Chinese labs churning out legal highs for the west")
700 million may be an overestimate; but no doubt the trend is accelerating:
("One in 10 people around the world gets high off designer drugs")
[on international rankings of (un)happiness]
Who are the hedonically underdeveloped nations?
Compare the top three countries eliciting a "very happy" response three years ago, i.e. Indonesia, India and Mexico.
The reason for citing these stats is just to keep hammering away at the significance of the hedonic treadmill - and the need for futurists serious about radically improving subjective well-being to tackle the biology of hedonic set-points.
* * *
Do we see scholarly journals, engineering disciplines, medical genetics initiatives, and mass movements dedicated to recalibrating the hedonic treadmill? Is hedonic set-point recalibration widely recognised as precondition of good health? ["Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being" - the official World Health Organization definition of health.] Is there a single medical service that offers prospective parents preimplantation genetic screening and counselling on alleles associated with high and low hedonic set-points? How can we make recalibration "sexy"?
Does anyone feel like adding a section to Wikipedia?
Should we aim to conserve, recalibrate or abolish the hedonic treadmill?
("Study Confirms A Paralyzed Life is Still a Quality Life")
* * *
What was the most brilliant year of your life?
("'The year I lost my limbs was the most brilliant of my life' - In a few weeks Alex Lewis went from being the owner of a pub, to becoming critically ill and a quadruple amputee. Yet he still describes the past year as the best he's ever had.")
The enemy of such good fortune for all of us isn't the hedonic treadmill per se but its calibration.
* * *
The CRISPR revolution: can precision engineering replace genetic roulette?
* * *
Can the horror story of Darwinian life have a happy ending
("Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.")
Fictional horror stories tend to be most horrific not when they consist in unrelieved gore, but when the mundane is punctuated by the sinister and tragic. Real Darwinian life can be similar - though there are plenty of sentient beings whose lives are chronically miserable and worse. As a thought-experiment, I'm genuinely curious what percentage of people would press a notional COPY button versus a notional OFF button for our world - or do neither. (Jera?) Either way, the CRISPR genome-editing revolution means such "philosophical" questions will shortly become moot – unless, that is, we buy the Simulation Argument.
* * *
Should germlines have editors? Nature argues the case against:
Should we perpetuate the misery and malaise of Darwinian life?
("Should We Create Superhumans? Q&A with Author James Rollins")
Dejan thanks, yes. Talk of genes / allelic combinations "for" particular psychological traits is woefully simplistic. But in my view, responsible prospective parents should be encouraged to study - for months if not years - medical genetics and epigenetics before bringing new life (and suffering) into the world. In school and college, Planned Parenthood should be part of the core curriculum, and preimplantation genetic screening free and ubiquitous.
Wolf, one problem is that other people's utopias - like other people's dreams and sexual turn-ons - can leave other folk cold. Most readers don't find “Island” nearly as compelling as its dystopian predecessor. The problem is even more daunting if one is touting hedonic set-point recalibration as the way forward. Even allowing for the deficiencies of my prose, recalibration is not a prospect to send a shiver of anticipation up anyone's spine. But unless we recalibrate the hedonic treadmill, misery and malaise will still abound even in transhuman nirvana.
* * *
Mark, yes, the risk of focusing too single-mindedly on the biology of hedonic set-points is that one can give the impression that the environment doesn't matter. Of course it does – a lot! There are countless cases less heart-warming than Alex Lewis. But when reading of some intriguing new transhumanist technology that will improve our lives, I always wonder if it will sustainably improve subjective well-being – or just be another false dawn.
Would a sentience-friendly Superintelligence conserve, "uplift" or euthanize Homo sapiens?
("Just three in ten people feel happy with their lives")
* * *
Utilitarians are cool:
("Cold-hearted or cool-headed: physical coldness promotes utilitarian moral judgment")
Carmi, I guess the question boils down to whether one should trust one's moral intuitions. Thankfully I know of no controlled trials, but statistically most white people would probably rescue a white baby before a black baby from a burning building, and almost everyone would rescue a new-born human baby before a pig. The reason in both cases is that a predisposition to help genetic relatives over non-relatives was fitness-enhancing in the ancestral environment of adaptation.
So should we attempt to overcome our perverted moral intuitions, just as we attempt to overcome our frailties of reason?
Yes, IMO - but it's going to be a long struggle.
* * *
Another piece of the jigsaw:
("Is depression a kind of allergic reaction? A growing number of scientists are suggesting that depression is a result of inflammation caused by the body’s immune system")
How is misery refracted through different cultures:
("Why Cambodians Never Get 'Depressed'")
Do you anticipate a future of Mill's higher pleasures?
("The Future of Virtual Sex")
Beth, some folk have access to a treasure trove, others just medieval squalor. On the whole, Mother Nature is exceedingly miserly with pleasure. From a purely technical perspective, we could genetically engineer life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss orders of magnitude richer than anything physiologically feasible today. Or instead we can trust the inscrutable wisdom of Mother Nature.
* * *
How ancient is the pleasure principle?
("Bees 'get a buzz' from pesticides")
("Pleasure Systems in the Brain")
* * *
Does sex have a future?
("The Herbivore's Dilemma: Japan panics about the rise of "grass-eating men," who shun sex, don't spend money, and like taking walks.")
Presumably the key to the answer is selection pressure. Modelling the nature of selection pressure in an era of “designer babies”, human cloning, robo-lovers (and so forth) later this century and beyond is challenging. But if we're morally serious about phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering, then antinatalist proposals like David Benatar's advocacy of voluntary human childlessness must be discounted because they ignore selection pressure.
("65-year-old German woman expecting quadruplets defends pregnancy")
The felt need to have children is deeply rooted in most people. On evolutionary grounds, we should expect nothing less. If people most passionately opposed to suffering choose not to have children, this will presumably impose selection pressure against any predisposition not to bring more suffering into the world. Fortunately, most parents say, I think sincerely, they want their children to be happy. The genetic revolution will (eventually) make this possible - though one's heart sinks sometimes at the obstacle's ahead.
("Do Humans Have a Moral Duty to Stop Procreating?")
The desire not to bring more suffering into the world is morally admirable. However, let us suppose that morally responsible people do decide to adopt children - or not to have children at all. The outcome of such decisions will be selection pressure against a predisposition to be morally responsible, and selection pressure in favour of a predisposition to go forth and multiply - or just be feckless and reckless. This "argument from selection pressure" holds whether we conceive of the purpose of anti-natalism as merely to restrict human population sizes, or outright human extinction à la David Benatar.
Perhaps responsible prospective parents would do better to use preimplantation genetic screening to load the genetic dice in their children's favour rather than forgo reproduction altogether?
* * *
Sex itself? Tomorrow's biotech can in principle deliver intensities of sensual pleasure orders of magnitude richer than anything now physiologically feasible. It's hard to imagine that anyone who tastes such delights would want to revert to today's limp foreplay.
David, for evolutionary reasons, most people regard nihilism and radical anti-natalism as absurd. But ask people whether they would like to create a copy of our world - with all its joys, but with all its unspeakable cruelties and suffering too - and most people would pause for thought. Frequently, they'll answer the hypothetical with a "No". In other words, what we're really dealing with here - typically though not always - is entrenched status quo bias, not a carefully worked out philosophical position.
* * *
Reckless genetic experimentation is irresponsible. Time for a moratorium on sexual reproduction without preimplantation genetic screening?
("Should we genetically engineer humans?")
Widespread genetic tweaking, let alone the full-blown genetic engineering of "designer babies", is probably two or three decades away. But trust in God or Mother Nature to turn up trumps is often sadly misplaced.
As a stopgap, let's use PGD to choose "low pain" rather than "no pain" alleles for our future children:
("The people who can't feel pain: Scientists discover cause of rare inherited condition that turns off pain sensors")
Should we stop reckless genetic experiments and start designing smarter, happier, healthier babies?
("Why China won’t listen to Western scientists about genetically modifying the human embryo")
* * *
Experience machines? Jason, in the long run, I agree with you: we can all plug in - though the nature of selection pressure in a world of ubiquitous VR and Experience Machines is hard to anticipate. In the meantime, hedonic recalibration seems an acceptable stopgap. Recalibration undercuts the false dilemma of "Escapism versus Realism" posed by opponents of biohappiness.
20th March is the "International Day of Happiness". When can the science of pleasure become an engineering discipline?
("The Pursuit of Happiness")
The international (un)happiness Olympics: let's hope all doping regulations can be scrapped:
("Top 10 Happiest Countries Are All in Latin America")
[on the UK Transhumanist Party]
Thanks David. I guess before working on the exact wording, we'd better debate - and take a decision on - whether the clause should be there at all. Yes, there is always the risk of an unsympathetic critic using the "E" word. But insofar as we're the Transhumanist Party, any support for preserving the existing human germ-line - or at least keeping today's genetic crapshoot - would be odd. Its preservation would guarantee that we'll be stuck with the biology of ageing, suffering, and all sorts of other human frailties indefinitely.
Thankfully, known carriers of, say, the cystic fibrosis allele today who opt for PGD aren't made to feel as though they are participating is some sinister eugenic plot to re-enact the coercive racial hygiene policy of the Third Reich. Also, free access to preimplantation genetic screening isn't the same as support for genetic engineering.
Why a cryonics option to complement radical anti-aging research? No least because telling older people that medical science is likely to find a curing for aging after their death risks being cruel. The fundamental obstacle to ultimate reanimation is irreversible information loss - which may be inevitable given the typical time-lags currently involved in the process or suspension. I don't know. But mainstreaming the cryonics option would dramatically reduce the incidence of such delays.
As the Transhumanist Party, I think we should be bold (but not sensationalist). Whether procreative freedom or cryonics, we can stress freedom of choice. And even if you think vitrification, say, is akin to re-formatting a hard disk, let's recall the fate of some folk who fondly supposed their data had been securely wiped...
Damian, short of using a completely made-up word (drug companies spend millions researching brand names that will play well in all cultures and languages) I'm sceptical there is a better internationally acceptable alternative to "transhumanist". Compare how, for example, "futurist" in Italy evokes the fascism of Marinetti. Maybe if the national party leader happens to be LGBT, "transhumanist" might confuse some people. But I don't think this problem will confront the leadership of the US Transhumanist Party, at least.
[None of the above should deter us a having a clear policy commitment in support of LGBT.]
Paul, transhumanists tend to be high AQ / high-IQ males with above-average scores on measures of utilitarian ethics / psychopathy. (cf. http://crookedtimber.org/2011/08/22/utilitarian-psychopaths/) This might seem a rather sweeping generalisation. Not all transhumanists are Randian Objectivists / free-market fundamentalists/ Sea-steaders (etc). But even the "compassionate" wing have hypersystematising tendencies - certainly compared to the average cat-lover.
Selection pressure for autistic / psychopathic / systematising behavioural phenotypes is more likely to come about IMO not from capitalism but from a reproductive revolution of prospective parents selecting "high IQ" alleles and alleles for their prospective children.
Alas "triple S" civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness isn't imminent. Immediate policy initiatives? Universal free access to preimplantation genetic screening for prospective parents; universal free access to cryonics; and the rapid development and commercialisation of in vitro meat products to replace the horrors of factory-farming. A pledge on Basic Income might not be distinctively transhumanist, but such a guarantee would seem common decency. Populism aside, all policies should be carefully costed.
* * *
Hitler was not the product of genetic engineering but rather its absence.
("Elon Musk doesn’t want to get into genetic engineering because he doesn’t know how to avoid 'the Hitler problem')
If a couple choose to have children, the question to consider is whether a genetic crapshoot is the ethically wise option, or whether instead they should load the genetic dice in their children’s favour. In each case, prospective parents are weighing risk-reward ratios - there are no guarantees. Preimplantation genetic screening differs from genetic engineering, but both technologies are likely to accelerate later this century and beyond. A lot of our genetic source code would seem extremely sinister if we grasped its ramifications: I hope that eventually it can be rewritten.
Evil? Rather than being aberrations, the Nazis were all too human. Indeed, it's impossible to understand the horrors of Third Reich if one believes that the Nazis set out to be evil. Some of their most monstrous crimes were committed by "idealists", Kantians with a strong sense of duty. Of course, other Nazis were sociopaths and sadists, but even in the SS, they were in a minority.
Stalin, too, was ideologically driven - incredible as it seems.
Like advocates of pure socialism, there are advocates of pure free-market fundamentalism who believe the only problem with their ideology is that it has never been applied with sufficient rigour. Maybe. A credible case that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner helped save the USA from a second Great Depression - and the rest of the world from something worse (Geithner's "Stress Test: Reflections of Financial Crises" is self-serving but worth reading.)
A betrayal? Lavrentiy Beria's downfall began when Khrushchev accused him of being "a traitor and spy in the pay of British intelligence". Likewise, it's possible that Alan Greenspan career was spent acting in the interests of international socialism.
But evidence in each case is lacking.
* * *
Bernard, I agree: as rationalists, we should oppose emotionalism, sensationalism and rhetoric. But whether we're considering organised violence against humans or nonhuman animals, such self-restraint is very different from urging avoidance of photography or raw video footage of what war - or halal slaughtering methods - actually entails. If one supports an action only so long as one is spared sight of the consequences, then one shouldn't be supporting it at all.
* * *
René, many thanks. For evolutionary reasons, the bitterest disputes tend to arise, not with one's ideological enemies, but between the Judean People's Front and People's Front of Judea. Sadly, this is true within transhumanism, animal rights and virtually any other cause you can mention. I'm personally pretty robust when combatting assaults by intellectual opponents. Disputes between friends and allies leave me paralysed with angst and indecision. On a brighter note, the reason I write stuff is the hope that people stronger-minded and more dynamic than me can take the project forward.
* * *
Sentience, "the ability to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively", is a more sharply defined term than "wisdom". Problems arise when the uneducated confuse the two. One doesn't want to come across as a stick-in-the-mud pedant; but the distinction is worth preserving, to say the least.
Thanks Rodney. If one happens to believe for technical reasons that our long-term future will be unimaginably sublime, then it's best to sound as boring and understated as possible.
* * *
Statism or individualism?
Evan, good questions. What I'd like to see happen - but almost certainly won't - is global hundred-year species project dedicated to phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering - perhaps under the rubric of the WHO's definition of health: "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being":
At the opposite individualistic extreme, responsibility falls on prospective parents choosing the genetic make-up of their future kids:
And then of course there are bioconservative scenarios where most people keep on rolling the genetic dice as now - which pretty much guarantee that pain and suffering persist indefinitely.
From the late great FM-2030 ("I would not eat anything that had a mother")
to the Transhumanist Declaration's (1998, 2009) commitment to the well-being of all sentience
to the abolitionist current in contemporary transhumanism, a commitment to help nonhuman animals alike has been implicit if not explicit.
But transhumanists can still be as prone to culturally engrained anthropocentric bias as anyone else.
Mike, drafting of both the original (1998) and revised (2009) Transhumanist Declaration went through an exhaustive and exhausting process of consultation. Dropping a commitment to the well-being of sentience, or restricting it to a narrower class of being, would - in my opinion - be a backward step. I doubt if any of us fully grasp the implications of what such a commitment entails; but such a claim is very different from the suggestion that signatories or participants in the debates were unfamiliar with the dictionary meaning of the world "sentient". The margins of sentience (a worm? a 12 week old foetus?) do indeed raise thorny issues that won't go away by definitional sleight of hand.
Issues of whether it’s normally wrong to modify the germline of another species, or engineer its extinction in the wild (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/mosquitoes-engineered-to-pass-down-genes-that-would-wipe-out-their-species-1.18974), or the long-term future (if any) of predation in general are topics that probably deserve another thread. At the risk of stating the obvious, signing up to a long-term goal is quite different from signing up to any one person’s ideas on how it's best promoted.
* * *
Is transhumanism anthropocentric?
("Transhumanism and Veganism")
Building human-friendly superintelligence is like building Aryan-friendly superintelligence. Yes, one hopes superintelligence will behave in a friendly way towards Aryans, but such an ethnocentric classification scheme doesn’t 'carve Nature at the joints'. Sentience-friendliness is a less arbitrary criterion for moral consideration than human-friendliness. Not least, a convergence of genetic, evolutionary, behavioural and neuroscientific evidence suggests that the sentience – and capacity to suffer – of the nonhuman animals whom we factory-farm and kill ranges from the level of human infants to human toddlers. If so, then we’d do well to act accordingly. Shutting and outlawing factory-farms and slaughterhouses is just a start.
* * *
Jera, Robert, many thanks. Yes. Actually I'm a bit sloppy. Sometimes I contrast "Darwinian life" and "post-Darwinian life" by using the terms in a technical sense. Darwinian life evolved under pressure of natural selection. Natural selection is "blind” and driven by mutations that are random (with respect to the direction of evolution). “Post-Darwinian life” refers an era when intelligent agents choose and predesign genomes in anticipation of their likely behavioural and psychological consequences. However, I also use the terms "Darwinian life” and “post-Darwinian life” as shorthand for today's pain-ridden biosphere ("Nature, red in tooth and claw”) compared to the hypothetical blissful regime of our civilised successors. It's normally good to be sparing with neologisms. But "Darwinian life" versus "post-Darwinian life" is IMO a distinction worth drawing - even if the latter is currently hypothetical.
"Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us.... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become."
Edward O. Wilson
(Consilience, the Unity of Knowledge)
Know thyself? Should we all publish our own genetic source code on the Net?
("Here’s why 'everyone should have their genome sequenced yesterday'")
* * *
[Adam Karlovsky writes] "Does anyone think that there would be something morally lacking, if the entire universe of beings reached a permanent state of nirvana?"
"Permanent" has connotations of stasis, the thought of which happy folk today often find unappealing. The meaning, significance and connotations of "nirvana" vary widely too. But if/when we abolish all states below "hedonic zero", then immorality and disvalue as we understand such concepts now will presumably become archaic. However, even after we cross this threshold of civilisation, a huge gulf will still separate early post-Darwinian life based on gradients of intelligent bliss from the theoretical fixed state-space of "ideal" states of matter-energy in any Hubble volume - where by “ideal” I mean states any change from which would diminish their sublimity. By analogy, perhaps think of "perfect" games of chess...
* * *
Should all sentient beings be legally protected from "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment"?
Article Five of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” The Green Party proposes extending such protection to “all sentient life forms”.
Here we go again: ("All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." Schopenhauer)
Sentient beings with the cognitive capacities of toddlers need caregivers - to be free living but not "wild".
* * *
The kinds of chemosterilant (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemosterilant) that can be used to control insect populations (e.g. cockroaches:
http://ojs-test.fcla.edu/index.php/flaent/article/viewFile/56072/53751) raise fewer ethical dilemmas than fertility regulation in large-long lived vertebrates.
A very natural reaction is to ask: why on earth should a hard-headed utilitarian be so squeamish in a world with so many worse horrors? Where is a sense of proportion? The reason for being so circumspect (IMO) is that humans simply can't be trusted - and we shouldn't trust ourselves. Seemingly un-utilitarian policies like upholding the sanctity of life - for humans and non-humans alike – are (probably) less likely to lead to unhappy outcomes than an ostensibly "utilitarian" approach.
* * *
The brand? It's worth stressing that all strands of the transhumanist movement have had a strong record on LGBT issues. Gender in intelligent minds is about as sensible as gender in nouns. Widespread public confusion of transexuality and transhumanism would be unfortunate; but I can't see this being a long-term problem. Co-incidentally or otherwise, the appearance of most politically well-known transhumanists doesn't radically challenge gender stereotypes.
[Interview on Singularity 1-on-1]
Singularity 1-on-1 interview
("David Pearce on Singularity 1 on 1: Give Up Eating Meat!")
Jeffrey, first, apologies, I was caught off-guard. I was expecting (on Singularity 1-on-1!) to tackle questions on the nature and prospects of post-human superintelligence - not defend what deserves to be a platitude, i.e. intelligent moral agents shouldn’t hurt, harm and kill other sentient beings for frivolous reasons.
Secondly, I agree: a vegan diet with B12 can potentially be close to ideal:
For many people, such nutritional worries may indeed be "overkill".
Why so defensive? Well, although everyone can flourish on a vegetarian diet – factory-farms and slaughterhouses should be shut and outlawed – a minority of people _do_ encounter problems with strict veganism. Instead of reverting to vegetarianism until they identify the problem, they then start eating meat again. Alas nutrition is not part of the educational core-curriculum. Anyone who decides to go vegan who is also slimming e.g. a fair proportion of young women in today's society, is setting themselves up for problems if they haven’t studied nutrition and (ideally) nutritional psychiatry. Some people feel psychologically healthier on a low-protein vegan diet – they feel calmer – but others do best on a high-protein diet. A high-protein diet is perfectly feasible for a vegan, as we know, but not without preplanning. Also, many ethically concerned people who quit meat and animal products are suspicious of science and scientific nutrition: another recipe for problems. Also, many meat eaters are happy to present a stark dichotomy – either everyone should be a strict vegan or life should carry on as now.
The solution? Ban and outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses without further ado and promote ethical nutrition as a subject in schools, universities, modern medicine and society at large.
Of course, I’d like to see global veganism overnight and an anti-speciesist revolution - but politics is the art of the possible.
* * *
Elmo, IMO it's worth everyone experimentally testing whether they do best psychologically on a high-protein or low-protein diet (or whether it makes no difference)
("Evolutionary Psychiatry: Carbs and Serotonin, A Connection After All?")
[on transhumanist values and the Meaning Of Life]
Transhumanism and the Meaning of Life:
("Transhumanism Needs to Establish a Meaning to Life")
Matt, I can't do full justice to all your points. But here goes....
Advocacy of using biotech to phase out involuntary suffering – and even engineering life animated entirely by gradients of intelligent bliss – does not entail signing up for some flavour of utilitarian ethics. Most value systems give at least some weight to alleviating suffering and promoting subjective well-being. The enemy of non-utilitarian value systems isn't happiness per se but rather uniform happiness, i.e. becoming “blissed out” rather than being temperamentally blissful. What's vital to meaningful relationships, critical insight, intellectual progress and a sense of social responsibility is the preservation of informational sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli - not an agent's absolute location on the hedonic axis. Radical hedonic enrichment isn't sci-fi either. Thus experimental strains of rats are already engineered to be either hyper-depressive or unusually “depression-resistant”. We can also use as human case studies some of the very happiest “hyperthymic” people alive today. To be sure, globally ratcheting up hedonic set-points to hyperthymic levels of well-being, let alone creating a future civilisation of superhappiness founded on gradients of invincible well-being, is an immense technical challenge. However, the biggest obstacles will probably be ethical / ideological.
1) Mastery of our genetic source code should allow relationships to be strengthened. For example, for evolutionary reasons, humans are predisposed neither to be wholly monogamous nor wholly polyamorous – a recipe for untold heartache. In the future, people who want to bond monogamously for life will be able to use arginine-vasopressin enhancement and bond more securely than is feasible today.
Sorry, could you clarify why you believe that choosing alleles/allelic variations predisposing to high hedonic set-points for one's future children is inimical to parent-child-bonding? Other things being equal, low mood and malaise are more corrosive of strong interpersonal relationships than good mood.
Overcoming adversity? Once again, the happiest people alive today also tend to be the most resilient, robust and well-motivated. If anyone takes us to the stars, it will be unquenchable optimists. By contrast, depressives give up easily. Happy, strong-minded people can uphold their values more robustly than psychological weaklings.
2) Should the small minority of people who consistently derive pleasure from harming others be integrated into genetically enriched superhappy society? Clearly, no. For example, a (conditionally activated) predisposition to rape may sometimes have been genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. But rapists need to be securely detained. This doesn't entail that rapists and other sex-offenders must be forced to suffer, just prevented from causing harm. Other people who derive pleasure from ethically indefensible behaviour – including minor offenders like those of us who enjoy wasting hostiles in 'Modern Combat 5' – can do so harmlessly in immersive VR. The capacity to edit human nature via genome re-design should eventually allow such violent proclivities to be purged from the gene pool. I hope so at any rate.
Does much more need to be said? Yes, evidently. But a future "Triple S" civilisation of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence is technically feasible and also - I believe - worth striving for.
* * *
Matt, perhaps first let's tackle an empirical question. Philosophers can argue until Doomsday over the Meaning Of Life. But can biotechnology ensure life always feels richly meaningful?
The answer is almost certainly “yes”. No one says “I feel profoundly happy, yet my life feels empty and meaningless.” Low mood is associated with a sense of lack of meaning and purpose. Such emptiness shades into nihilistic thoughts in severe clinical depression. By contrast, euphoric mania is marked by an abnormal intensification of subjective meaning, purpose and significance. Of course, I'd urge intelligent hyperthymia, not uncontrolled mania!
Yet is life animated by information-sensitive gradients of bliss really meaningful in some transcendent sense? I'll duck that metaphysical question here. Insofar as one's life has meaning today – whether the pursuit of knowledge, artistic creation, helping others or simply the joys of family life, or simply cultivating one's garden – then its subjective meaning can be hugely accentuated via biotech. Hedonic recalibration does not subvert meaning: empirically, such enrichment creates more of it.
Too facile? What if one's life presently derives its subjective meaning from making heroic sacrifices for the afflicted? Well, it was once said of Madame de Staël that "She is such a good friend that she would throw all her acquaintances into the water for the pleasure of fishing them out again". After the biology of suffering becomes technically optional, it's hard to see ethically how anyone should be compelled to undergo subjective distress to promote narrative coherence in the lives of others. Such a prospect, it must be said, is still some way off.
As it happens, I agree with you about the tension - and even outright contradiction - between the values of some strands of the contemporary transhumanist movement. But is there an inherent contradiction to prospect of a “Triple S” civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity, and superhappiness? Not to my knowledge.
* * *
Is there an objective Meaning of Life? Are there objectively true and false values? Can Hume's guillotine be cheated?
Many transhumanists are anti-realists about meta-ethical issues. I wouldn't personally dismiss your question. Insofar as value can be naturalised, then - for reasons we simply don't understand – the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world intrinsic metric of (dis)value. Combine this objective axis of (dis)value with an impartial scientific God's-eye-view and we find that ethics and decision-theoretic rationality alike converge on phasing out the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of intelligent bliss.
Either way, in our context here such a controversial perspective is a red herring. If you believe that most sentient beings today lead “objectively” meaningless lives, then radically elevating hedonic set-points won't make their lives metaphysically more meaningful, merely subjectively richer. More to the point, this argument cuts both ways. Among people whose lives today you reckon are objectively meaningful, then radical hedonic recalibration [as distinct from engineering uniform bliss] needn't dilute any transcendent meaning. Values and preference architectures can potentially remain intact as subjectively quality of life is biologically enriched – unless, that is, your values and preferences are constitutively tied to promoting (some forms of) suffering. Unlike the Matrix or Nozick's “Experience Machine”, radical set-point recalibration allows continued engagement with basement reality – perhaps more closely than at present. Recall that low mood is associated with behavioural suppression, whereas positive mood promotes behavioural approach and engagement.
Warfare? We need to consider the evolutionary context. In contrast to the behaviour of male humans and chimpanzees, history doesn't record a single instance of women banding together for the purpose of a war of territorial aggression. If we are serious about world peace in an era of WMD, then gynocratic governance via a democratically accountable UN might be one policy option to explore. Such ideas aren't distinctively transhumanist. What is distinctively transhumanist is the quest to develop full-spectrum superintelligence – not just superhuman prowess in the narrow autistic sense of the term “intelligence” measured by ill-named IQ tests, but a super-human capacity for perspective-taking: a God-like capacity for empathetically understanding all possible first-person perspectives and acting accordingly. Why can't two mirror-touch synaesthetes have a fist fight? Because it would be like harming oneself! Technologies of naturalised telepathy, and “mind-melding” via reversible thalamic bridges (etc), promise to revolutionise both our ethics and canons of decision-making rationality. Post-Darwinian life is unlikely to resemble the African savannah.
If you want highlight the countless ways things might go wrong with the transhumanist vision, then you'd be on firm ground. But a future Triple S civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness isn't an incoherent idea – just a path strewn with multiple pitfalls.
* * *
Are utopian experiments that don't genetically rewrite human nature doomed to fail?
("The Utopia Experiment’, by Dylan Evans)
* * *
The Sword and the Shield?
("Is the Tongue the "Sword of a Woman? Is it just a stereotype that women are nastier gossips than men ")
Will tomorrow's video games be too compulsively addictive for the normal brain to resist?
("Gaming Your Brain")
Advocates of high-tech Jainism should not be addicted to first-person shooters; but I can't help it.
Is synthetic will-power any more morally objectionable than synthetic fuel?
("The Problem of Artificial Willpower The ethical threat posed by Adderall and other drugs that improve motivation") The problem with Adderall isn't that the acutely enhanced motivation it induces is "artificial"...
* * *
If posthuman superintelligence will be our IT-augmented biological descendants - and the CRISPR revolution in biotech suggests organic robots can be recursively self-improving too - then a strong case can be made for a convergence hypotheses. The pain-pleasure axis as a metric (dis)value seems universal to sentient organic life - though an impartial God's-eye-view has been forbidden by natural selection. However the I.J Good/ Yudkowsky / MIRI / Bostrom “Intelligence Explosion” hypothesis doesn't assume that digital super-AGI will be sentient or have a pleasure-pain axis of (dis)value. So a lot depends on what conception of posthuman superintelligence we find most credible.
[on neuronal superpositions]
Physicalism and Quantum Minds
("The Hard Problem of Consciousness Solved? An Experimentally Testable Conjecture")
Does incremental progress lie ahead? ("This year's Nobel prize is awarded for solving the Hard Problem of consciousness")
IMO, we're not reached even the pre-Galilean era in understanding the mind-brain.
What would falsify - or at least tell strongly against - the conjecture that classical digital computers will one day be subjects of experience?
The reason we are ethically entitled to do nasty things to characters in video games is the characters aren't subjects of experience. (though see Vox magazine on Brian Tomasik:
One can't prove that one isn't surrounded by p-zombies. Does this inability entitle one to act out one's darker appetites? In practice, the advent of reversible thalamic bridges should enable us to “mind-meld” with other subjects of experience. Mind-melding technologies should finally lay to rest the Problem of Other Minds. The really interesting question, IMO, isn't the sceptical worry raised by notional p-zombies. Rather, it's understanding why we aren't p-zombies given what we think we know about the basic stuff of the natural world. I reckon the answer will lead to a revolution in our conception of both the nature of the physical and the classicality of mind – bold claims, for sure, but empirically falsifiable.
[We should be wary of folk who offer testimonials to their own sanity. But I was touched just yesterday to get an out-of-the-blue email from Jim Rutt of the Santa Fe Institute asking if I was the author of https://www.physicalism.com
[“Probably the best non-BS attempt at a theory of quantum influenced consciousness I've seen. And you make some specific falsifiable predictions which should be addressable in the not too distant future”. We shall see!]
* * *
Quantum physics is behind your toaster; alas headlines like the below will have sceptics rolling their eyes...
("Is quantum physics behind your brain’s ability to think? From consciousness to long-term memories, the human brain has some peculiar computing abilities – and they could be explained by quantum fuzziness")
* * *
How does a pack of neurons create "in-the-body" experience?
("The disturbing consequences of seeing your own Doppelgänger")
* * *
"Strong" emergence? Robert, yes, you could be right. However, my working hypothesis is that physicalism is true - and more radically, that the superposition principle explains everything from the properties of the natural world to our bound phenomenal minds to why anything exists at all. Yes, single-neuron microelectrode studies using awake subjects have all sorts of methodological problems. Maybe individual neurons lack consciousness. Perhaps any attempt to vindicate reductive physicalism fails, and we must fall back on "strong" emergence. As I said, my working assumption that physicalism is true is just that - an assumption. If experiment (and in particular, molecular matter-wave interferometry) falsifies the non-classical account of phenomenal binding I offer, then my preferred account of conscious mind and the nature of the physical collapses too.
Robert, "strong" emergence and physicalism are inconsistent. Imagine if life had proven irreducible to molecular biology.(cf. Bergson's Élan vital https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89lan_vital) Most philosophers of science (and philosophically-minded scientists) hate strong emergence for solid if not compelling reasons.
Either way, what I'm hoping for is "I find your conjecture exceedingly implausible. An easier and more elegant experimental falsification than the protocol outlined is 'x'". Honourable exceptions aside, I've mostly had, "I find the conjecture exceedingly implausible" - which of course I do too! It’s tempting to think (and I mostly do): no big deal. But if "strong" emergence occurs, then the ethical implications are potentially far-reaching - the most obvious example being digital sentience. Everything I’ve written on abolitionist bioethics assumes that only biological minds (and maybe futuristic nonbiological quantum computers) are subjects of experience. If “strong” emergence really erupts from insentient systems, then we need to know how and when – even if we don’t understand why.
* * *
Any decent scientific theory of conscious mind should explain (1) why consciousness exists at all. (2) how consciousness could be locally or globally bound by a pack of membrane-bound (seemingly) classical neurons (3) how consciousness could have the causal efficacy to allow us to discuss its existence (4) why consciousness has its countless textures and the interdependencies of their different values. But above all, any decent scientific theory of conscious mind should offer novel, precise, empirically falsifiable predictions - with experimental outcomes to satisfy believers and critics alike.
It's not that one can refute folk who say they believe that classical digital computers will one day become conscious, any more than one can refute Eric Schwitzgebel ("If Materialism Is True, the United States Is probably conscious"
or Giulio Tononi’s “Integrated Information Theory”. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_information_theory)
Alas these are just "philosophical" opinions - untestable, as far as I can tell.
A negative result from the interferometry experiment outlined will blow my own answers to the four questions above out of the water. The prediction of a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of our bound conscious minds and the formalism of QFT sounds insane; but I'll still be disappointed if the experiment (or something like it) is never done.
Thanks Mark. Why should philosophers of mind study quantum field theory? I focus on the phenomenal binding/combination problem because (IMO) a potential solution yields novel, precise experimentally falsifiable predictions. But as well as invoking the problem of structural mismatch, dualist philosopher David Chalmers offers a second argument against “constitutive panpsychism”, i.e. the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, namely the argument from microphysical simplicity (see “the palette problem” - http://individual.utoronto.ca/lukeroelofs/Phenomenal%20Blending%20and%20the%20Palette%20Problem.pdf). If we're physicalists, a particle-based ontology makes the teeming diversity of our experience impossible, whereas (IMO) a field-based ontology makes such diversity natural: the diverse values of qualia express (superpositions of the) the world’s fundamental fields.
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Joshua, IMO the answer lies under our noses, so to speak. "Where Does All the Weirdness Go?" as David Lindley once put it. Quantum theory [minus the physically ill-motivated "collapse of the wave function"] is increasingly recognised as a universal story. And yet we don't see macroscopic superpositions of live-and-dead cats. For the most part, the everyday world looks and behaves as though it were classical. Thus visible objects (and cats!) 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.
But the above description of the mystery presupposes perceptual direct realism. By contrast, what each of us apprehends as the classical world populated by classical objects is (IMO) an entirely quantum phenomenon internal to your mind. If each of your membrane-bound nerve cells were a discrete classical object, rather than a component of successive neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors (colour neurons, edge-detectors, motion-detectors, etc), then you'd be a zombie in the sense that the USA is a zombie. Without non-classical phenomenal binding, there would be no classical objects that could behave in classical Newtonian ways within your world-simulation in the first instance. You'd just be a pattern of neuronal mind-dust: a micro-experiential zombie [to use Phil Goff's term].
Yet if this conjecture potentially solves the binding problem - and in conjunction with the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical potentially solves the Hard Problem! - then why aren't experimentalists rushing to create in vitro neuronal superpositions - scaled-up versions of e.g. buckyball superpositions.
Well, aside from the sheer technical challenges involved, one reason is our deeply held presupposition that bound conscious states “emerge” on a time-scale of milliseconds via [somehow] patterns of classical neuronal firings. By contrast, even the most robust neuronal superpositions are “destroyed” [i.e. quantum coherence is irreversibly delocalised into the larger CNS-environment combination though uncontrolled environmental entanglement] over naively ludicrously short time-scales.
Alas, tell someone that you think their theory of mind is off by a dozen-or-so orders of magnitude and you may get an incredulous stare. :-)
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Soon? I hope you're right - because experimentally creating and training up in vitro "Schrödinger's neurons" to confirm or falsify the conjecture is an order of magnitude more technically challenging than a "Schrödinger's virus" experiment. A distinguished range of thinkers from William James to David Chalmers have highlighted the momentous implications of the binding problem - and the inability of (classical) physics to explain why we aren't just patterns of "mind-dust" / micro-experiential zombies. However, mention that you’d like to test the possibility that neuronal superpositions are the essence of mind and you won't find folk rushing off to the lab to find out. But see e.g.
("Quantum superposition, entanglement, and state teleportation of a microorganism on an electromechanical oscillator")
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Phenomenal self - in both the synchronic and diachronic sense - presumably came long after primordial consciousness. [How primordial is "primordial"?] Answers here range from Planck era to late pre-Cambrian to Julian Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". As you know, I favour an early date.
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Thanks Adam. Our creation of smart and insentient nonbiological robots suggests that bound phenomenal consciousness is in one sense a mere implementation detail of organic life. The "raw feels" of pain, jealousy, depression, anxiety (and so forth), as we undergo such states are no more essential to the function of nociception (etc) than, say, the textures of the pawns in a game of chess.
Of course, there are some "implementation details" we may wish to retain and enhance.
[I'd qualify the above by saying that, in my non-standard view, there is a large class of problems too difficult for an insentient classical digital computer to solve or even pose, namely anything involving investigation of the first-person, "program-resistant" subjective properties of matter and energy. But a standard response would be just to invoke a strong physical version of Church-Turing and claim that digital computers can do anything we can do. Either way, this is a complication rather than a rebuttal.]
Does nociception unaccompanied by subjective distress intrinsically matter?
No, IMO, and the same is true in general of any life-form that isn't a subject of experience, from a carrot to a silicon (etc) robot.
* * *
How do philosophers get away with such nonsense?
("Through Flaws in the Machine, Robots May Develop "Souls": An Interview with John Gray")
What scientists often dismiss as "anthropomorphism" is largely justified vis-à-vis the feelings of non-human animals. The biology of our core motions is strongly conserved across the vertebrate line and beyond. By contrast, ascribing subjective feelings and emotions to digital computers - whether inside or outside non-biological robots - is just an anthropomorphic projection. There is not the slightest evidence that classical digital computers can solve the phenomenal binding problem.
* * *
Should social life be substrate-specific?
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Is materialism versus physicalism “splitting hairs”? If quantum mechanics is complete, and if we discard the naïve positivism of Copenhagen, then matter in the classical sense doesn't exist. The superposition principle is universal. However, it's true that most Copenhagenists, “dynamical collapse” theorists, “hidden variables” folk and Everettians alike share a common presupposition, namely that the world's fundamental fields (or branes etc) are intrinsically non-experiential. So their proponents are typically "materialists" in the broad sense.
Yet (scientifically literate) idealists can be physicalists too, i.e. monistic idealists may believe there is no "element of reality" missing from the formalism of (tomorrow's) physics - even though science lacks any understanding why the solutions to the field-theoretic equations yield the particular phenomenal textures they do. More specifically – and in answer to your point - it's not clear that physicalistic idealists (who believe that the "fire" in the equations is experiential) have any more difficulty than physicalistic materialists in accounting for the uniformity of Nature. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a greater non-uniformity in the natural world than the ontological eruption into a supposedly insentient reality of an entirely new phenomenon, i.e. consciousness.
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Jordan, IMO Adam's paper [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3912322/ - "An integration of integrated information theory with physics"] is great. If we take seriously the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then relativistic quantum field theory (or its still speculative successor) mathematically formalises the properties of qualia. But what explains the local and global phenomenal binding of fields of micro-qualia? As you suggest, the phenomenal binding of a synchronously activated network of distributed neuronal feature-processors - a "clump of discrete nerve cells" - seems physically inexplicable.
However, we're making an assumption here. We may speak of discrete, decohered nerve cells only if the superposition principle breaks down in the awake (or dreaming) mind-brain. There is no evidence this is the case.
Intuitively, sub-femtosecond superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors have nothing to do with bound phenomenal consciousness, which arises (we assume) over a timescale of milliseconds via [somehow] successive nerve cell firings. Ask the question: "What does it feel like to be a succession of 1015 per second neuronal superpositions [“Schrödinger's cat” states], and the obvious answer is “Nothing!” Or at most, psychotic noise. After all, a femtosecond is ridiculously brief - less than thirty orders of magnitude more protracted than fundamental Planck-scale intervals. Yet if we postulate that the world's fundamental physical fields are experiential, then the “too brief" objection is no more tenable than the "too small" objection.
Unfortunately, experimentally probing the properties of in vitro neuronal superpositions [IMO, true neural networks rather than today's impostors flying under that label] will be extraordinarily hard because they are “destroyed” [i.e. lost in an effectively thermodynamically irreversible way via thermally-induced decoherence to the extra-neural environment] so rapidly.
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Micah, Jera, there's an ambiguity here. Asking whether silicon robots can process information contained in electromagnetic radiation within the range of 400nm to 700 nm is clearly different from asking whether they undergo visual experiences. "Yes" and "no" respectively, IMO. But the phenomenology of our thought-episodes and streams of conscientiousness is subtler. So unfortunately, whether someone is asking a question about the functionality of thought, or its phenomenal aspect, or both, is not always obvious.
An absence of visual experience doesn't stop a silicon zombie from navigating the world - though open-field settings are still an immense challenge for programmers. Analogously, does our cognitive phenomenology really confer any capacity beyond a classical Turing machine?
Yes, IMO - not least, to think about and to explore the phenomenology of consciousness, and to talk about that phenomenology with other unitary subjects of experience. This response smacks of interactionist dualism – but only if our conception of the physical derives from materialist metaphysics.
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I'm not a p-zombie. If I have a migraine, its painfulness is a phenomenon I wish to explain, not a conjecture I seek to prove. A radical eliminativist about consciousness can tell migraine sufferers they are all p-zombies and defy them to prove otherwise. “I can find no place for phenomenal consciousness in my theory of the world”, says the eliminativist - to which I can only respond: so much the worse for your theory of the world. Perhaps a more interesting question is understanding why we're not p-zombies, given what we think we know about 1) the insentience of the basic stuff of the world; and 2) the classicality of neurons. Both assumptions can be challenged.
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Where is the world is colour?
("Philosophy of Colour Perception")
Perhaps compare the world-simulationist perspective according to which classical primary and secondary properties alike are brain-dependent.
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Perhaps the Hard Problem will turn out to be an artefact of materialist metaphysics and naïve classical physics set against a backdrop of perceptual direct realism. Reductionism and physicalism are worth distinguishing. Physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from the equations of tomorrow's physics and their solutions may well be true. But reductionism? If - as most people find plausible - the superposition principle breaks down, or at least becomes functionally irrelevant, in warm, wet macroscopic systems like the mind-brain, then we can treat neurons as discrete, decohered, classical objects – just as in textbook neuroscience and standard connectionist theory. Unfortunately, the assumption of classicality makes phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors seemingly impossible. At best, we should be “micro-experiential zombies”, to borrow Phil Goff's expression. (cf. http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness.)
By contrast, if the mind-brain supports macroscopic quantum coherence in the guise of bound phenomenal objects (“local” binding) and a fleetingly unitary phenomenal self (“global” binding), then classical reductionism fails - because coherent neuronal superpositions describe individual physical states. Coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-detectors (“Schrödinger's cat" states) cannot be interpreted as classical ensembles of states.
Fortunately, this rather odd conjecture (i.e. our phenomenally bound minds are akin to a movie running at around 1015 quantum-coherent frames per second) should be experimentally falsifiable with the tools of next-generation interferometry. Until then, I'll stick to my guns: classical digital computers are just zombies...
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David, a couple of thoughts. First, I think it's worth distinguishing panpsychism in the sense of the claim that the most fundamental entities recognised by physics have an experiential aspect with which they are somehow associated from the claim that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Secondly, I suspect the only way to make practising scientists sit up and take notice is to propose some concrete experiment that makes novel, experimentally falsifiable predictions that distinguish between alternative theories.
[As someone with a philosophical rather than scientific temperament, I should add with some embarrassment that it's only belatedly I've given serious thought to experimentally testing a view I've long held. On a brighter note, the confirmation/falsification should be clean and decisive - either way.]
David, first, yes, perhaps I am in thrall to scientism – but only to the extent I'm prepared to transpose the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics to describe an idealist ontology rather than embrace epiphenomenalism or Chalmersian dualism. Secondly, I agree with you about the inadequacy of naïve Popperian falsification as the demarcation criterion of science from metaphysics. That said, I still think we should go to extraordinary lengths wherever possible to come up with novel experimental predictions that can put our conjectures to the test. I know that seeing how misguided so many smart people are reassures most folk of the soundness of their own judgement. In my case, alas, the principle of mediocrity leads me to infer I'm most likely deluded too. Third, I wouldn't expect to derive physical velocity from anything akin to a sense of “wanting to go fast”. The particular subjective properties of (superpositions of) the world's fundamental fields are in most contexts incidental to any functional information-processing role in living organisms – and not least, digital computers. One exception, as far as I can tell, is the built-in proto-functionality of the pleasure-pain axis.
Two questions: First, is (the mathematical formalism of tomorrow's) physics closed and complete? (Let's ignore Gödelian complications here.) In short, is physicalism (as distinct from materialism) true? Secondly, if so, how do we "read off" the values of the diverse textures of experience from the solutions to the master equation of physics in the absence of some sort of cosmic Rosetta stone? Well, if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then strictly speaking, all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. Zombies are physically impossible because they are unphysical. An answer to (2) is more elusive.
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David, as a non-materialist physicalist, my tentative working hypothesis is indeed that the physical is indeed (literally!) identical with the experiential. This sounds nonsensical because we intuitively associate the “physical” with the classical and the mechanical – e.g. conceiving particles a discrete mechanical billiard balls, neurons as decohered classical objects rather than quantum superpositions, and so forth. So as you say, a natural response is that non-materialist physicalism doesn't explain the familiar gross properties of macroscopic world. Yet a rigorous account of how quasi-classicality emerges from the world's fundamental quantum field-theoretic substrate is really a task for professional physicists not philosophers. I've found Zurek's work (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1412.5206.pdf) extremely helpful here. Either way, when an outspoken materialist like Steven Hawking also affirms that we have no idea what “breathes fire into” the equations, positing non-experiential "fire" as the intrinsic nature of the physical doesn't explain the gross quasi-classical and “mechanical” features of the natural world any better than does positing experiential "fire". Indeed, such a materialist metaphysical assumption simply creates the Hard Problem - not just why or how consciousness could exist, but how it could have the causal capacity to discuss its own existence as now.
The biggest challenge IMO for any physicalist who identifies the physical with the experiential is the phenomenal binding problem. [Phil Goff's title “Why panpsychism doesn't help explain consciousness”
http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness is too strong; but the key point about “micro-experiential zombies” still stands.]
However, the biggest challenge also offers the greatest opportunity - because here we have a route experimentally to falsify [or confirm!] the whole program. In the event of a negative result to the experiment I outline https://www.physicalism.com/index.html#6, I simply have no answer to Chalmersian dualism.
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The need for experiment? Well, my natural habitat is the armchair, but here goes:
1) The use of psychedelics allows exploration of alien state-spaces of consciousness inaccessible to pure theory.
2) The Kantian distinction between the world of phenomena and cognitively inaccessible noumenal reality can (as Schopenhauer realised) be turned on its head. If consciousness is the "fire" in the equations, then (a tiny sliver of) noumenal reality is all one will ever know except by inference. Systematic experimentation (whether via supercolliders or psychedelics) manipulating the "fire" in the equations is vital.
3) Whether our conscious minds are essentially quantum or emergently classical is often treated as a “philosophical" question. But (for example) any theory of mind that either does or doesn't rely on a breakdown of the unitary dynamics is empirically falsifiable. Ruling out whole classes of theory is progress...
* * *
Why do these seemingly abstruse discussions matter? I can sympathise with anyone who came here [HI FB group] expecting to find practical discussion on how to make the work a happier place - and instead finds the concrete stuff interspersed with (long) philosophical discussions on consciousness. The reason (IMO) this debate matters ethically is that getting our theory of consciousness wrong can be ethically catastrophic. For example, one well-known transhumanist, Eliezer Yudkowsky, doesn't believe that human babies, nonhuman animals and indeed anyone without the capacity for meta-cognition is conscious. Likewise - and closer to home - a lot of people would say that the claim that digital computers will never be subjects of experience is not just mistaken but potentially ethically catastrophic too. So let's get this right.
* * *
David, first, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then p-zombies are impossible – conceptually impossible, not just impossible in the real world. By contrast, explaining why we're not p-zombies is a problem - IMO an insoluble problem - for materialists and epiphenomenalists. On the other hand, explaining why we're not so-called micro-experiential zombies is a problem both for physicalistic panpsychists / Strawsonian physicalists and materialists / epiphenomenalists alike insofar as we make the standard neuroscientific assumption that membrane-bound neurons are discrete, decohered, and thus effectively classical.
Secondly, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then strictly speaking all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy: it's the “fire” in the equations that makes there a world for us to describe. But there is a difference between contexts where the particular subjective texture of consciousness is functionally relevant, such the causal capacity of organic minds to talk about the nastiness of phenomenal pain, and other contexts where the particular intrinsic experiential nature of the physical would seem incidental. However, “incidental' is not synonymous with “epiphenomenal” in the strict sense of the term. Perhaps compare semiconductors made of silicon and those made of gallium arsenide. Software can run perfectly well on computers with chips made of either. Incidental implementation details don't matter - for our purposes, at any rate. But this substrate-neutrality doesn't mean epiphenomenalism is true: it's still the intrinsic physical properties of each information-processing system in question that do all the causal work.
So how are organic minds functionally different from digital computers for which the physical implementation details are indeed incidental to the functioning of the system? How is intentionality - both subjective intrinsic intentionality and a functional approximation to extrinsic intentionality - naturalistically possible for conscious organic minds within a (non-materialist) physicalist framework?
Once again, I could go on if you're interested; but alas I suspect I've already lost you...:-(
One of the deep assumptions of QM is that coherent superpositions can never be directly observed. Their existence can be unequivocally detected by non-classical interference effects. Some philosophers have argued that phenomenology is the essence of mind. Others have argued that the essence of mind is intentionality (in Brentano's sense of the object-directedness of thought - "aboutness"). But IMO the essence of mind is phenomenal binding in the form of neuronal superpositions.
One problem is sociological rather than technical. In science, it's not enough for an unorthodox theory to make novel, precise, falsifiable predictions. Experimentalists must give the conjecture some non-negligible antecedent probability of being true. If your conjecture predicts that Nature prefers quantum superpositions of white pawns over black pawns, then I'm not going to drop everything and spend six months performing the extremely delicate interferometry experiments to refute it. I'll just say I find the conjecture extremely implausible. In response, you may try to offer compelling reasons for believing why your unorthodox conjecture is true. Unfortunately, a disadvantage of needing to "sell" your conjecture to experimentalists as credible is that you have to start pushing it more strongly than the evidence warrants - and thus coming across as a crank. What I really want to say is: "Let's try to do the experiment."
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Jessica, many thanks, I'm pretty sceptical of my conclusions too. My worry isn't that researchers will be sceptical; rather, it's they'll find the conclusion just too incredible to be worth experimentally falsifying - despite the poverty of alternatives. IMO, the key assumptions are 1) physicalism is true 2) phenomenal binding is classically inexplicable (here I agree with David Chalmers et al.) 3) the unitary Schrödinger dynamics of QM doesn't break down in the CNS, therefore neuronal superpositions are real. The last assumption (3 is weaker than pure Everett. Perhaps I'd have been wiser to restrict myself to the more modest claim. Few physicists anticipate any departure from the unitary dynamics for a virus (109 atoms): a "Schrödinger's virus" experiment is already planned (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090910/full/news.2009.903.html) If pressed, a majority - or at least a large minority - of investigators would (I guess) allow the reality of fleeting neuronal superpositions too, or be agnostic. Of course, the fleeting sub-femtosecond existence of neuronal superpositions (1014+ atoms) wouldn't - by itself - make our minds quantum computers. Intuitively, neuronal decoherence timescales are so insanely rapid - and decoherence is so insanely hard to control - that it’s hard to imagine that selection pressure could ever get to work in such a regime. Of course, I find it hard to imagine too – just not as hard to imagine as Chalmersian dualism.
"A teleological level"? Speaking literally, reality has only one ontological level, IMO. Our minds instantiate a tiny part of that level - the "fire" in the equations. However, for us to make sense of the world, not least for us to understand the CNS and non-biological computers, we need in practice to assume multiple compositional levels (physics, chemistry, biology, etc) and multiple levels of explanatory and computational abstraction. And yes, this explanatory handle can include invoking "tendencies". However, these levels all ultimately need to be "cashed out" in terms of fundamental physics. We can perform such a reduction, in principle, for programmable digital computers (otherwise humans couldn’t build and code them) and biological life (i.e. Darwin and the Modem Synthesis). But if neurons/neuronal micro-experiences are effectively classical, as we naively suppose, then local and global phenomenal binding would seem irreducible, even in principle, i.e. "strongly" emergent. Strong emergence would be a catastrophe for physicalism and the ontological unity of science.
Different algorithm, different qualia? Yes. The challenge would be testing such a claim. When speaking of quantum computer algorithms, we normally think, not of phenomenal binding to create perceptual objects, world-simulations and a unitary phenomenal self, but of e.g. Shor's algorithm for integer factorization - or some similar computational task. I imagine that integer factorization does feel subtly different depending on which quantum computer algorithm the futuristic information-processor in question is using. Alas I know no way to falsify such a speculation – unlike phenomenal-binding experiments using distributed neuronal feature-processors as outlined in the protocol described.
Are micro-qualia / micro-experiences a recipe for epiphenomenalism? Well, if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then all experience, and only experience, has causal efficacy. In most contexts, the precise subjective character of the micro-experiences in question is computationally incidental. It’s irrelevant to our purposes whether the physical constituents of the fermionic fields making up a silicon microprocessor and a gallium arsenide microprocessor consist in qualitatively different (and effectively discrete) micro-experiences, or instead something wholly insentient, as we normally suppose. Either way, the physical is doing all the causal work. But the intrinsic nature of the physical is still obscure.
Are micro-qualia / micro-experience unintelligible? Well, perhaps consider everything from "grandmother cells", to microelectrode studies of awake verbal competent human subjects, to the eye of single-celled dinoflagellates - evolved (possibly) to help them see their prey better. The grisly roots of Darwinian life run deep.
What's unintelligible, in my view, isn't self-intimating micro-experiences, but rather the “emergence” of unitary local or globally bound macro-experience from a pack of classical neurons / neuronal "mind-dust".
Mercifully, experiment should (eventually) resolve the issue...
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("People for the Ethical Treatment of Reinforcement Learners. Promoting moral consideration for algorithms")
Abstractions like algorithms don't matter. Painful or pleasurable experience do matter. We have no evidence that phenomenally-bound experience "emerges" at different levels of computational abstraction in a classical digital computer – or at least, not unless we are willing to abandon physicalism and the ontological unity of science. By analogy, let's suppose that all the skull-bound minds in the USA agree to participate in experiment. They agree to implement any algorithm that one might wish, including an algorithm for, say, feeling jealous, having a migraine, undergoing a nightmare or a phantom-limb pain - anything at all. If, for example, individual skull-bound minds each undergo a pinprick of distress and reciprocally communicate - as rapidly as you like - does a suffering pan-continental subject of experience with a migraine "switch on"? How? Why? Or would the USA remain what it is now, i.e. a micro-experiential zombie, so to speak? Classical Turing machine functionalism has no resources to solve the phenomenal binding/combination problem.
How do organic minds, supposedly a mere “pack of neurons”, carry it off - and thus deserve moral consideration? Well, that's the story for another post...
Robert, IMO digital software no more needs subjective feelings than Deep Blue needs chess pieces with textures. Of course, only a minority of researchers share my view that classical digital computers will always be zombies - invincibly ignorant by their very nature, and incapable of investigating an immense range of questions of interest to a full-spectrum superintelligence.
But as the decades roll by, I do wonder whether more people will start asking why the zombies don't wake.
[cue for "How do you know that my PC / Alpha Dog / the Internet (etc) isn't conscious?"]
Roeland, there is a large range of problems for which the particular subjective texture of consciousness is irrelevant. Equally, there is a large range of questions for which the particular subjective texture of consciousness is essential. A digital zombie can't explore and map out alien state-spaces of consciousness. For it's not a subject of experience. Naturally, if you're a mathematician, exploring the nature of consciousness will sound like some minor corner-case. If you're a professional psychonaut, such intellectual challenges will seem central.
Who is right? Well, I assume a full-spectrum superintelligence could tackle both classes of problem. But IMO that full-spectrum superintelligence won't be a classical digital zombie.
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("Neuroenhancement and the Extended Mind Hypothesis")
One's mind doesn't extend beyond one's (transcendental) skull when one is dreaming. Does it hop outside when one is awake? Conflating the conscious and the non-conscious by lumping them together as "mind" might be tempting. But in doing so, we muddy perhaps the most fundamental ontological distinction I know.
[It's worth mentioning that Andy Clark is a perceptual direct realist, which complicates the issue.]
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Does reality have levels? This spatial metaphor comes naturally to us. We think of biology, chemistry and physics and the successes of reductionism. In computer science, we assume levels of abstraction - and nowadays often suppose that unitary phenomenal minds will in the future somehow "emerge" from these assumed levels of abstraction. Yet are "levels" of Nature ontologically real? Or is talk of "levels" just a methodologically and heuristically useful tool for us to gain some sort of conceptual handle on what's going on?
IMO, expecting levels of abstraction to generate bound phenomenal minds is hopeless. Better instead to assume that the superposition principle of quantum mechanics is universal; reality is mathematically described by a single gigantic wave function; and our bound phenomenal minds give us privileged access to the intrinsic, program-resistant, experiential "fire" in the equations whose behaviour the formalism of physics exhaustively describes.
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Thanks Jordan! A couple of points. I lean towards strict finitism in maths and physics. So I'd probably use the expression "almost incomprehensibly large" - though still infinitesimally small compared to a notional infinite multiverse. Secondly, I feel a bit bad because all the mathematical spadework for approximate decoherence timescales in the CNS [assuming the unitary dynamics] is cribbed straight from Max Tegmark. Alas nobody who denies that the phenomenal binding problem is SERIOUS if physicalism is to be saved is likely to give such unorthodox neuroscience more than a cursory glance. Until recently, I assumed that the conjecture was just a philosophical flight of fancy. Reading e.g. Maximilian Schlosshauer on experimental progress in the decoherence program helped me realise we are dealing with a potentially empirically falsifiable hypothesis.
* * *
Brian Tomasik on Tegmark's Level IV:
We have tentative, provisional experimental evidence that Everett is correct. The unitary dynamics of QM never breaks down; the world exists as a single vast superposition. However, there are no quasi-classical "branches" of the multiverse where Jesus is the Son of God (etc). Nor have we any evidence to support the existence of Tegmark's Level IV, or the falsity of nominalism / reality of abstract objects. (cf. http://www.amazon.com/Science-Without-Numbers-Defence-Nominalism/dp/0691072604) & http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/arche/old/pages/papers/Benacerraf's%20Dilemma.pdf) This doesn’t stop frailer spirits (like me) often succumbing to the finitist analogue of "infinitarian paralysis". Thus 10350(?)(?) life-supporting Everett “branches” puts the notorious "global poverty is a rounding error" comment reported by the VOX EA conference article (cf. http://www.vox.com/2015/8/10/9124145/effective-altruism-global-ai) in perspective. I take seriously the possibility that EA may indeed involve computer science research - what are the theoretical upper cosmological bounds to moral agency? - though not the kind of Turing machine functionalism that views consciousness as purely epiphenomenal. (If this were so, then consciousness couldn’t have the causal efficacy to allow us to discuss its existence - as now. The distinction between the formal and subjective properties of mind can’t be entirely clean.)
Amit, thanks, well, it's true that some of what we take to be the laws of physics may be only bylaws. But there aren't quasi-classical Everett “branches” where a civilisation of dragons exists at the heart of the sun, nor where any of the world's religions is true; they all contain disguised logical contradictions and physical impossibilities. Re wild animal suffering: yes, if you tell anyone that sentient beings shouldn't harm each other, then they'll almost always assume you're a utopian dreamer and ecologically illiterate. But predation, starvation and indeed experience below hedonic zero will shortly be technically optional in our forward light-cone.
* * *
Neuronal superpositions interest me more than feline superpositions:
("Researchers describe the wavefunction of Schrödinger's cat")
Researchers who work on the measurement problem in QM and philosophers of mind baffled by the phenomenal binding/combination problem don't normally cross-fertilise. But IMO the two problems are inseparable. The "Schrodinger’s neurons" solution I reluctantly favour doesn’t involve any new physics, i.e. modifying or supplementing the unitary dynamics of QM à la Penrose. Rather, a "Schrödinger’s neurons" conjecture treats what is intuitively a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind, i.e. sub-femtosecond decoherence times of superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors, as instead an experimentally falsifiable prediction – a prediction which if confirmed via the interferometry experiment outlined would silence even the most implacable critic of quantum mind.
Of course, that’s a very big “if”….
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"Nothing" can't exist and could never exist. In that limited sense, I think critics who lazily dismiss the question as meaningless are right. However, what is the default condition from which any notional departure stands in need of explanation? Could our existence be a disguised implication of the default condition?
Intuitively, one wants to say this default condition is there shouldn't be any properties, objects or events. For the existence of properties entails something being one way rather than another, i.e. creation of information. And what could explain the creation of information ex nihilo? The default condition from which any notional departure stands in need of explanation should be no information. And here we come to the connection with modern physics rather than "just" philosophy. A fundamental principle of quantum physics is that information can neither be created nor destroyed. Max Tegmark asks "Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?"
I just go one step further. What would be the case if the information content of reality is necessarily zero? In the spirit of Dr Johnson (cf. http://www.samueljohnson.com/refutati.html), it's tempting to respond e.g. "Look, I can see a cat in front of my eyes, ergo the information content of reality can't be zero!"
But it's not that simple...
Are digital zombies going to "wake up" and start requesting pain-killers and anaesthetics? Sure, even now we could rig them up with voice-synthesisers; program them to fake subjective distress; and make them emit hard-rending pleas for pain-relief when sprinkled with sulphuric acid, digital or otherwise. But unlike sentient organic minds, classical silicon robots won't spontaneously seek pain-killers. Their CPUs don't support phenomenally bound subjects of experience. How and why organic minds support phenomenal binding is of course a controversial topic.
* * *
David, as you know, "materialistic" physicalists [and philosophically-minded scientists] aren't unaware of the problem of giving primacy to contemporary physics - and thereby committing themselves to a possibly false ontology. Particles, fields and superstrings/branes all have their partisans. But a majority of scientists today find the idea that the "fire" in the equations is experiential rather than non-experiential in character is so implausible as scarcely to be worth explicitly disavowing.
* * *
Bonnitta, many thanks. [yes, thanks Jordan and Vanessa, Bonnitta's quote is from my paper above. Brian Tomasik's views are closer to Daniel Dennett than my physicalistic idealism.] The lame, boring and honest answer is: I don't know. The key is surely to extract a novel falsifiable prediction - and find a team of experimentalists willing to suspend disbelief long enough to take on the challenge. Presumably, a cultured neuronal network with a suitable input/output device could be "trained up" to recognise various externally presented objects. Routine neural scanning can then pick out [what we would classically describe as] the synchronously activated distributed neuronal feature-processors elicited by any given stimulus, i.e. textbook connectionist neuroscience but using real neurons rather than tendentiously named "artificial neural networks" and their standard statistical learning algorithms. Next comes the fiendishly hard part - beyond the reach of present-day interferometry if [as I'm assuming] "dynamical collapse” theorists are mistaken. Instead of finding "nonsense" neuronal superpositions, the conjecture predicts we'll preferentially discover the signature of successive sub-femtosecond neuronal macro-superpositions implicating exactly the neuronal feature-processors of the synchronously activated neurons that a classical neuroscience story reports are activated in the trained-up neuronal network when object-recognition occurs. The conjecture will be falsified if - and this route to falsification is more credible IMO than any breakdown of the unitary dynamics – the indirectly experimentally-detected neuronal superpositions disclose nothing but incoherent psychotic noise – as functionally meaningless as naïve intuition about such ridiculously rapid thermally-induced decoherence timescales would suggest.
Is such an experiment really do-able this side of Doomsday? Speaking as an armchair physicist, I think so.
I don't really have one...
Quantum woo? "Classical" can be worse. How quasi-classicality emerges from the underlying formalism of QFT is poorly understood. Consciousness is mysterious too. Do the two mysteries somehow cancel each other out? Materialists hope so. But how or why or unclear.
* * *
"Scientism"? David, yes, guilty I guess. But only provisionally. If it transpires our bound phenomenal states of mind really are missing from the formalism of our best scientific theory of the world, then materialistic and non-materialistic physicalism alike are false.
Experiment? Well, there are good experiments and bad experiments. Ideally, a conjecture should yield novel, specific, falsifiable predictions. Ideally, the outcome of a well-designed experiment should falsify - or confirm - a conjecture to the satisfaction of proponents and critics alike. Conversely, to use your example, discovering - or failing to discover - classically inexplicable quantum phenomena at nerve terminals and calcium ion channels neither confirms not falsifies dualism. By contrast, the outcome of the experiment I outline will either falsify or confirm the conjecture about phenomenal binding to the satisfaction of both proponent and critic. Which of the two negative outcomes of the interferometry experiment described most critics would bet on, I'm not sure. But if your theory predicts unicorns living at the bottom of the garden and we robustly find unicorns, then such a discovery is strong grounds for provisionally accepting the theory as true. Assuming, that is, one recovers from the shock...
* * *
Whether you're a femto-mind, atto-mind or zepto-mind, life is short...
("Quantum Mechanics Is Putting Human Identity on Trial")
A nice piece; for "flaunt" read flout.
* * *
At least one of our presuppositions or background assumptions about consciousness must be wrong. But which one(s)?
("Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?")
Kevin, it's not that Kurzweilian fusion of humans and digital intelligence is undesirable, but rather (IMO) technically infeasible. Likewise a full-spectrum digital super-AGI as envisaged by MIRI. “You insist that there is something that a machine can't do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that”, said von Neumann. Yet there are countless tasks beyond the wit of digital zombies - not least the investigation of the “program-resistant” subjective properties of bound phenomenal minds investigated by psychonauts like Sasha Shulgin. (cf. https://www.biointelligence-explosion.com/parable.html)
Dominic, I'd agree with you about alien minds, both natural and artificial, biological and nonbiological. Where I'm (probably) in a minority is my disbelief that classical serial digital computers, or classically parallel connectionist systems, will ever be subjects of experience, i.e. back to our old friend the phenomenal binding problem. By contrast, the properties of nonbiological quantum computers, superintelligent organic minds and hybrid systems centuries and millennia hence may well be incomprehensible to us.
* * *
What is the relationship between sapience and sentience? There are - or rather soon will be - ultra-intelligent digital zombies that can (behaviourally) surpass sentient organic minds in countless cognitive domains. Conversely, there are already countless highly sentient but stupid organic minds. However, what we may call full-spectrum superintelligence will (IMO) necessarily be both highly sapient and highly sentient because only a sentient & sapient cognitive agent can investigate the diverse properties of sentience. Unfortunately, we don't yet have any formal computational description of how such a cognitive capacity is even physically possible. Indeed, if the distinction between the formal and the "program-resistant" subjective properties of mind were entirely clean, then we wouldn't physically be able to allude to these subjective properties in the first instance.
* * *
A cognitive super-elite? Possibly. But the price of genome- and epigenome-editing is bound to collapse. And what will be the ramifications for ethics and decision-theoretic rationality - and libertarian individualism! - when technologies of “mind-melding” via reversible thalamic bridges and naturalised telepathy come on tap later this century and beyond? We shouldn't assume that smarter minds will always want to exploit simpler minds rather than help them.
Can DARPA's "cortical modem" promote universal empathy?
* * *
Ending suffering via ending life? No one seems to have taxed Gautama Buddha with this intuitively knock-down criticism of his brand of abolitionist ethics. Nor are specialists in chronic pain treatment reproached for not putting patients out of their misery. Even the minority of ethicists who care only about reducing suffering might be well advised to support enshrining the sanctity of life in the law - just as classical utilitarians would do well to support an absolute legal prohibition on torture even in “ticking bomb” scenarios. Given human frailties, not having such safeguards in place risks a worse outcome in the long run.
Hedonic recalibration? The world is full of folk with mutually inconsistent nostrums to how to make the world a happier place. How does one reconcile the logically irreconcilable? I don't know. To choose a deliberately trivial example, what would an analogue of MIRI's Coherent Extrapolated Volition amount to for supporters of all the world's different football teams? Generalised, the problem is immeasurably larger. Hedonic enrichment and set-point recalibration doesn't promise to solve all the world's problems. However, being constitutionally “better than well” does underwrite anyone's - and potentially everyone's - subjective quality of life. More likely, perhaps, is that the lessons of hedonic set-point theory are ignored. A century from now, will our successors be having angst ridden “Why are we so angst-ridden?” debates? I wouldn't be surprised.
* * *
[Ziv Hellman writes] "But the zombies question still exercises me. Consider a Star Trek transporter thought experiment. The transporter reconstructs Captain Kirk, atom by atom, on a planet surface. Is the reconstructed Kirk conscious? If yes, is it just because of the neural circuitry or was something non-physical also transported? Or is the reconstructed Kirk a zombie?"
Ziv, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then Captain Kirk is conscious precisely in virtue of his atom-by-atom reconstitution on the planet surface. Nothing non-physical - such as the spooky non-experiential "stuff" of materialist metaphysics - is transported.
Even so, might the reconstituted Captain Kirk be a "micro-experiential zombie" to use Phil Goff's term? After all, the apparent “structural mismatch” between our bound phenomenal minds and the ostensible microstructure of the brain is what finally tilts David [Chalmers] away from the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical towards his naturalistic dualism. (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) However, the very reason that most people balk at the idea that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, namely that the proposal makes the fundamental "psychons" of consciousness ludicrously small, also contains the germ of a solution to the phenomenal binding problem – and better, a novel empirically falsifiable conjecture that can be vindicated or refuted with the tools of next-generation interferometry.
In brief, unless the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the brain, next-generation interferometry will detect the sub-femtosecond signature of quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions in the mind-brain in the guise of quantum interference effects AND these indirectly detected quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions will 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 subject.
On this view, phenomenal binding isn't optional: it's physically inevitable – and experimentally demonstrable with Starfleet's interferometers. Reconstituted Captain Kirk will be fine.
* * *
Assume, as seems increasingly likely, that Penrose and other “dynamical collapse” theorists are mistaken. The continuing success of the decoherence program experimentally confirms that the unitary dynamics of QM doesn't break down in the brain. What follows for consciousness? Approximate decoherence timescales in the CNS can be calculated. Sub-femtosecond decoherence timescales of neuronal superpositions would seem to rule out any non-classical account of complex consciousness.
Yet is this claim an empirical discovery – or just an intuitively plausible assumption? If by “complex consciousness“ we mean serial logico-linguistic thought-episodes, not least mathematical reasoning, then durations of hundreds of milliseconds and more would seem to disqualify the computational relevance of ultra-rapidly “destroyed” [i.e. lost to the environment in a thermodynamically irreversible way] neuronal superpositions. But what if by “complex consciousness” we mean phenomenal binding into perceptual objects via distributed neuronal feature-processors? Synchronous firing of discrete membrane-bound classical neurons / Jamesian “mind-dust” doesn't yield the unitary perceptual objects of our everyday world-simulations. Hence David Chalmers naturalistic dualism. At most, we should be micro-experiential zombies (cf. http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness)
On the face of it, sub-femtosecond superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors are irrelevant to local and global phenomenal binding too. After all, we perceive our local environment with a time-lag of scores of milliseconds, not picoseconds or less. But such an objection presupposes an untenable direct realist theory of perception. When we're awake, input from the optic nerve (etc) updates [from our finite neuronal menu] the contents of our world-simulations with a time-lag of scores of milliseconds. But such timescales say nothing about the phenomenal simplicity or complexity of the successive neuronal superpositions themselves.
So assuming Penrose is mistaken, what's it like to instantiate 1015 +per second quantum coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature processors? How does the experience differ from what you're undergoing right now?
Fortunately, such a conjecture will be empirically falsifiable with the tools of next-generation interferometry.
* * *
Is neuroexistentialism based on a false metaphysics?
"Yes, Neural Chemistry Is Really Just the Love You Feel for Your Child"
An impoverished conception of the intrinsic nature of the physical is the bane of contemporary neuroscience.
* * *
What will experiment detect when interferometry can probe the kind of sub-femtosecond timescales at which theory predicts neuronal superpositions should exist?
1) a) no interference effects, i.e. the superposition principle breaks down in the CNS. This is what Penrose and Hameroff; Ghirardi, Rimini and Weber; and others would predict.
b) the tell-tale non-classical interference signature that the unitary dynamics predicts.
IF b) is the case, then will the sub-picosecond neuronal superpositions detected be:
2) a) functionally irrelevant psychotic noise, of no more relevance to the phenomenology of our bound phenomenal minds than, say, fleeting sub-picosecond superpositions of pawns to the gameplay in a chess match.
b) a perfect structural match that implicates 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?
I'm guessing b) in both cases. But the answer (alas!) seems unlikely to be resolved by the a priori philosophising of armchair physicists and FB neurophilosophers but by experiment.
Perhaps see too:
("The Cognitive Binding Problem: From Kant to Quantum Neurodynamics")
* * *
Yes, John Baez's cruel but witty "Crackpot Index" repays reading by armchair physicists:
But back to the substantive issue. David Chalmers claims that neither classical nor quantum physics can explain phenomenal binding, so we must embrace dualism.
Max Tegmark delivers what is widely accounted a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind by calculating approximate decoherence timescales in the CNS - though unfortunately without recognising why phenomenal binding is a horrendously serious problem for physicalism. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf)
All I'm doing is urging that instead of treating it as obvious that these sub-femtosecond decoherence timescales for neuronal are computationally and phenomenally irrelevant to unitary mind, we do the necessary experiments when "Schrödinger's cat states" can be scaled up from fullerenes to neurons - most likely via "trained up" in vitro neuronal networks rather than using live subjects.
Which of the experimental outcomes I listed in my comment above will we discover?
And if the conjecture is falsified?
Well, the disgrace in science isn't being wrong; it's being "not even wrong".
* * *
"...and then an unexplained miracle occurs" doesn't have the same ring
("Network theory sheds new light on origins of consciousness
Where in your brain do you exist?")
Mice have minds; digital computers have programs:
("Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded and Machine Minds")
Single cells are often reckoned the smallest credible "psychons" of consciousness; but may some single-celled microorganisms support evolutionarily advanced sentience?
("Human-like 'eye' in single-celled plankton: Mitochondria, plastids evolved together")
* * *
Jera, immensely complicated information-processing systems from the financial markets to ecosystems to software executed on today's digital computers are not subjects of experience. Or rather, if they are subjects of experience, then "strong" emergence is true. If "strong" emergence is true, then kiss goodbye to the ontological unity of science. By contrast, some extremely simple states involving minimal information-processing e.g. uncontrollable panic or orgasmic bliss, are exceedingly intense. If one is a materialist rather than a Strawsonian physicalist, and/or if one believes that neuronal networks function merely as classically parallel information-processing systems rather than successive, ultra-rapidly decohering quantum superpositions, then the spectre of "strong" emergence looms for phenomenally bound biological minds too.
Background assumptions? One fundamental and extremely plausible assumption is that whatever "breathes fire into the equations" of physics is something intrinsically non-experiential in character. Another extremely plausible assumption is that nervous systems are too "warm, wet and noisy" for the superposition principle of QM to be computationally or phenomenally relevant to the local or global phenomenal binding of our minds. But other researchers are willing to explore other options - ranging from Chalmersian dualism to radical eliminativism: an option I refuse to take seriously until its proponents start refusing anaesthesia.
* * *
If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - the elusive "fire" in the equations - then zombies are physically impossible. Monistic physicalism is true. Conscious states have the causal capacity to talk about their own existence. Of course, most of us have an extremely strong intuition that the "fire" in the equations is non-experiential in character. But this is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific discovery.
* * *
The esoteric-sounding term "qualia" has been an intellectual disaster for philosophy. I catch myself using it - the term is endemic to the literature - but saying the "raw feels" of experience would be preferable. Radical eliminativism about "qualia" sounds an intellectually respectable position. Radical eliminativism about the "raw feels" of pain or terror sounds (as is) absurd.
IMO the twentieth-century divorce between science and professional philosophy was a misfortune for both. Compare how the naïve positivism of Copenhagen held back progress in quantum theory for half a century - or the (sometimes) unhelpful role of falsification police in debate over M-theory and the Landscape today. Or how traditional scientific materialism has no explanation of why we're not p-zombies. Or how most scientists are innocent of the challenge to physicalism posed by the phenomenal binding problem. Of course, a practising scientist could point to toe-curling examples of the scientific ignorance of academic philosophers. I'm just saying that the idea that by not exploring "philosophical" issues one is somehow able to transcend philosophy is naïve.
* * *
...That's one reason (I've belatedly come to realise) why some sort of decisive experiment is so critical.
A negative result from the experiment described (6 cleanly falsifies the account of phenomenal binding (and the intrinsic nature of the physical) I defend.
End of story.
Assuming such a negative outcome, I haven't really wrapped my head around the implications for the abolitionist project.
If bound phenomenal consciousness is (sometimes) a property of classical or quasi-classical systems, then we should presumably be worrying about digital sentience, the fate of mind uploads, the suffering of smart prostheses and much else besides - basically Brian Tomasik's perspective, as I understand it. I guess staying open-minded is the key - it's what stops the merely unorthodox from become cranks.
* * *
Jera, when you are in a dreamless sleep, you are for all practical purposes nothing over-and-above a pack of neurons - or (IMO) a population neuronal "mind-dust". When you awake, somehow you - unlike the skull-bound population of the USA - become a unitary subject of experience. But "unitary" here does not mean seamless. Your visual field, for example, can support multiple bound dynamic objects running around on a football pitch. And other modalities of experience are integrated into your world-simulation too, e.g. the chanting of the crowd. "Seamless" consciousness that was undifferentiated would be functionally useless.
Quantum mind theories can be divided, crudely, into those that do (cf. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1571064513001188) and those that don't invoke a physically real "collapse of the wave function”. Both yield testable consequences. However, it's easier experimentally to falsify any conjecture like Penrose's Orch-OR that proposes modifying the unitary dynamics of QM with some kind of indeterministic and irreversible wave function collapse.
Orch-OR? Chris, my main worries are conceptual: it's a semi-classical account of mind. Binding is mentioned, but only in passing.
The crux is I don't understand how mere intra-neuronal quantum coherence and (hypothetical) gravitationally-induced self-collapse can explain local or global phenomenal binding. Even if some version of Penrose's gravitational conjecture were correct, then (as far as I can tell) the upshot would still be patterns of classical Jamesian neuronal “mind-dust”. Or in other words, even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, we'd still be micro-experiential zombies, to use Phil Goff's term. The authors are quite explicit: “neural firings are entirely classical”. And for sure, if instead of Orch-OR we assume the unitary dynamics, then credible decoherence times for neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors - let alone pan-cerebral global phenomenal binding – are (intuitively) absurdly short: a dozen or more orders of magnitude too rapid to be relevant to the timescales over which consciousness is typically supposed to "emerge".
Br contrast, if we assume the unsupplemented, unmodified unitary dynamics, and if we assume that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then phenomenal binding is integral. Decoherence is the story of ultra-rapid phenomenal unbinding. Synchrony is really superposition. Evolution via natural selection explains why statistically it's not psychotic binding...
* * *
Felix, sorry, "Strawsonian physicalism" is a conjecture about the intrinsic nature of the physical, i.e. the elusive "fire" in the equations that mystifies even outspoken materialists like Stephen Hawking ["What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"]
An extremely plausible assumption is that this intrinsic nature is non-experiential: i.e. mathematical physics exhaustively describes fields (or branes, etc) of insentience. Any version of physicalism that makes this plausible assumption is a cousin of traditional materialism. Hence the seemingly insoluble Hard Problem of consciousness that plagues materialist metaphysics. However, a minority of scientifically literate philosophers, notably Galen Strawson but anticipated by Michael Lockwood, Grover Maxwell, Russell and ultimately Schopenhauer, are prepared to drop this assumption without giving up on the causal closure and completeness of (tomorrow's) physics. What follows, they ask, if the tiny part of the world one instantiates isn't ontologically different from the rest of the natural world, but instead discloses its intrinsic physical nature – the mysterious “fire” in the equations?
David Chalmers flirts with this idea. But Chalmers believes that the conjecture founders on the structural mismatch between our phenomenally bound minds and the microstructure of the brain. How can a pack of discrete, membrane-bound, essentially classical neurons be anything other than discrete pixels of classical “mind-dust"? Scan the brain of a waking/ dreaming subject, and no bound phenomenal objects are found, just synchronously active distributed neuronal feature-processors. Chalmers maintains that even if Strawson et al. are correct about the intrinsic nature of the physical, neither classical not quantum physics allow a derivation of the properties of our bound phenomenal minds – of either “local” phenomenal binding (individual perceptual objects) or “global” phenomenal binding (the fleeting unity of perception and the synchronous unity of the self) Either way, monistic physicalism fails.
This is too quick IMO. In common with most researchers, Chalmers makes an extremely plausible assumption, namely that the timescales relevant to the phenomenal binding of synchronously firing distributed neuronal feature-processors are milliseconds or more. Despite the efforts of Penrose, Hameroff and others to demonstrate how microtubules might sustain macroscopic quantum coherence for the milliseconds or so typically presumed needed to be of any phenomenal or computational relevance to conscious mind, most physicists and neuroscientists find these multi-millisecond timescales unfeasibly long in an environment as “warm, wet and noisy” as the brain.
So let's assume that Penrose and other dynamical collapse theorists are mistaken about modifying the unitary dynamics of QM. Timescales of e.g. neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS can be calculated (e.g. by quantum mind critic Max Tegmark and others). These timescales are ridiculously short, perhaps femtoseconds or less. Plainly, brain states that last femtoseconds can't be conscious! Or so we might assume. However, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the fundamental units of experience must be not just ludicrously small, but ludicrously short-lived too. And at such ludicrously fine-grained temporal resolutions, coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-detectors cannot be interpreted as classical ensembles of states. Coherent neuronal superpositions describe individual physical states. If consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then some form of phenomenal binding isn't optional, but inevitable – whether “psychotic” binding, as naively seems most plausible, or alternatively, the perfect structural match between the formal and subjective properties of mind whose ostensible absence drives David Chalmers to dualism.
Who is right? Well, we could philosophise about it - my own temperamental preference! Alternatively, we could attempt experimentally to falsify the conjecture with the tools of next-generation interferometry.
* * *
Michael, apologies, physics throughout much of the twentieth century was dominated by a philosophy of positivism. According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, we must postulate a fundamental dualism between a microscopic quantum realm and a macroscopic classical realm. When we don't observe a physical system, the system evolves according to the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic Schrödinger equation. But when humans (and cats?) make an observation, there supposedly occurs a physically unexplained "collapse of the wavefunction" - in the case of Schrödinger's famous cat-experiment, a collapse of the superposition onto one of its two component states.
A lot of modern work in QM does away with the projection postulate. We must instead consider the observer in physical terms as a macroscopic quantum system interacting with the cat. Perhaps see Wojciech Zurek below on "Quantum Darwinism". But they key insight was provided by Hugh Everett way back in 1956.
A nice overview of Zurek:
("Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process")
* * *
Chris, thanks. If the conjecture is false, I seriously doubt it will be because the unitary dynamics breaks down in the CNS. More likely, I suppose, is a failure of the second prediction, i.e. the indirectly detected quantum coherent neuronal superpositions will robustly implicate all and only the synchronously firing feature-mediating neurons that orthodox neuroscience reveals are activated when individual phenomenally bound objects are perceived. Even if you take Everett and Strawson AND the phenomenal binding problem seriously, then designing the protocol for an experiment that you assume will yield nothing more interesting than noise in a digital computer CPU is hard to motivate.
* * *
What does consciousness do? Given the presumed causal closure and completeness of physics, how is any sort of causal efficacy for consciousness even possible? What could conceivably cause us to talk about consciousness – a physical impossibility if consciousness were epiphenomenal?
Some philosophers and scientists believe mysteries of consciousness are natural in origin but unfathomable by the human mind. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_mysterianism)
Maybe they are right.
But IF experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. On this conjecture, there is nonetheless a difference between information-processing systems where the textures (“raw feels”) of consciousness are computationally incidental - your PC can be made of silicon or gallium arsenide – and biological organisms endowed with states of consciousness that have a built-in proto-functionality. The prime example here is states of the pleasure-pain axis. Its proto-functional properties have been recruited by natural selection and “encephalised”.
ET will not have an inverted pleasure-pain axis.
None of the above is intended to suggest that classical digital computers are - or ever will be - unitary subjects of experience. Regular readers of this FB group will know my views on the significance of the phenomenal binding problem and the need experimentally to probe the properties of quantum coherent neuronal superpositions over what are intuitively irrelevantly short timescales: https://www.physicalism.com
Any scientifically-minded reader will want to cut through the philosophical verbiage and focus on the absurd-sounding but experimentally falsifiable prediction. For the technical challenges involved in such an experiment, perhaps see "Toward Quantum Superposition of Living Organisms":
Laura, instead of superpositions of a live-and-dead cat
think of a successive superpositions of feature-processing neurons - where each individual phenomenally-bound superposition is "destroyed" (lost for all practical purposes in a thermodynamically irreversible way to the extra-neural environment) over sub-femtosecond timescales. More poetically, think of yourself as a akin to a movie running at around 1015 quantum coherent frames-per-second.
Some background: here is David Chalmers on why the phenomenal binding problem is so fundamental if the ontological unity of science is to be saved:
A smart, scientifically literate guy like David Chalmers doesn't concede defeat and surrender monistic physicalism lightly.
Max Tegmark on why well-known "dynamical collapse" quantum mind theories like Orch-OR are so unpromising:
Alas in contrast to Chalmers, Tegmark doesn't recognise the significance of the phenomenal binding problem.
The conjecture I explore in Daniel's link simply treats Tegmark's reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind as an empirically falsifiable prediction - though note that the hypothetical detection via next-generation interferometry of successive sub-picosecond neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS won't, by itself, prove the conjecture. For the conjecture to be experimentally vindicated, these indirectly detected quantum coherent neuronal superpositions must robustly implicate all and only the synchronously firing feature-mediating neurons that standard neuroscience says are activated when individual phenomenally bound objects are perceived.
* * *
Laura, yes, it's useful to distinguish "local" phenomenal binding from "global" phenomenal binding - i.e. the binding of what textbook neuroscience says are distributed feature-processors into individual objects from the global unity of perception and the entire virtual world-simulation that one instantiates. Decoherence times for individual superpositions of the entire mind-brain (perhaps attoseconds or less) are much more rapid than for individual local neuronal superpositions. However, IF consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and IF the unitary dynamics of QM doesn't break down in the mind-brain, then the problem isn't explaining the existence of phenomenal binding. Rather, the problem is explaining why it's not nonsensical "psychotic" binding. Psychotic binding wouldn't yield the vital structural match between our phenomenal minds and the structural-relational description of physics - the seeming absence of which drives David Chalmers to his counsel of despair: dualism.
The answer I'd give is set within the framework of "quantum Darwinism" laid out by one of pioneers of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics, Wojciech Zurek (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1001.0745v1.pdf for a nice appraisal of Zurek.) I could now go off on a rather speculative spiel. But I'd rather focus on the critical experiment that will make-or-break this entire approach to conscious mind. Experiments using live human subjects are presumably impossible for the foreseeable future. However, cultured in vitro neuronal networks should suffice. Let's first "train up" a multilayer neuronal network with a suitable output device to recognise a variety of inputs. Then, identify the distributed neuronal feature-processors implicated in diverse object-recognition on a standard, classically parallel connectionist account. Next comes the technically challenging part. Penrose, GRW, and other dynamical collapse theorists will presumably predict that interferometry won't find the tell-tale non-classical interference effects at all. Theorists who do endorse the unitary dynamics of QM but not quantum mind will predict we'll find the interference effects alright - but all we'll discover from the fleeting neuronal superpositions they signify is psychotic noise. Thermally-induced decoherence in the CNS is too strong for any kind of selection pressure to get to work. Selection pressure has turned plants into quantum computers, we are told, but not organic brains. You know what I predict. But instead of getting a reputation for peddling quantum consciousness "woo", I'd rather some ingenious experimentalist takes up the gauntlet that David Chalmers has thrown down to traditional materialists and Strawsonian physicalists alike.
Neuronal versus digital thalamic bridges? IF the conjecture I explore is correct, then the "mind-melding" of twins and our technically sophisticated successors consists in fleeting, non-psychotic neuronal superpositions. Severing the thalamic connection causes a loss of coherence [i.e. the ordering of the phase angles between the component neurons in the superposition] to the environment in a (for all practical purposes) thermodynamically irreversible way. Hence no more shared consciousness. By contrast, digital computers can't [non-psychotically] phenomenally bind. The superposition principle doesn't break down in the CPU of your PC or a futuristic digital thalamic bridge but in such a context it's just computationally irrelevant "noise".
* * *
Karn, most researchers balk at the proposal that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical because intuitively it makes the fundamental quanta of experience too small. For Chalmers, however, it's the impossibility of a quantum-theoretic or classical account of phenomenal binding that's ultimately decisive against monistic physicalism. But if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and if the superposition principle holds in the CNS, then local and global phenomenal binding is inevitable. We just need to test (via tomorrow's interferometry) whether such phenomenal binding is nonsensical "psychotic" binding - because neuronal superpositions decohere too rapidly for any quantum Darwinian selection process ever to have got off the ground - or alternatively, whether individual neuronal superpositions deliver the perfect structural match between phenomenal mind and brain whose alleged absence drives Chalmers to dualism.
Professor Jack Tuszynski of the University of Alberta puts it nicely, albeit in the context of a Penrose-style "dynamical collapse" theory of QM: “If a potato or rutabaga can utilize quantum coherence, it's likely our brains could have figured it out as well.”
* * *
What's sorely needed are theories of consciousness that make novel, specific, experimentally testable predictions. Claims like Eric Schwitzgebel's proposal that a "holon" such as the USA is a subject of experience
can't be disproved. But such "strong" emergence is akin to magic. Unless all else fails, let's not give up on physicalism and the ontological unity of science.
Another proposal is that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - the elusive "fire" in the equations about whose intrinsic character physics is silent. The stumbling-block here is the binding problem. Our waking / dreaming minds are, in Daniel's sense, "holons". Yet neither classical nor quantum physics can seemingly account for the local or global phenomenal binding of our everyday experience. Thus even if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and even if membrane-bound neurons do support rudimentary consciousness, then we should at most be Jamesian "mind dust" - micro-experiential zombies, so to speak. See: http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf ("The Combination Problem for Panpsychism" by David Chalmers) & http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness ("Why panpsychism doesn't help explain consciousness" by Phil Goff).
And here at last we have scope for a novel, specific, experimentally testable prediction. I don't claim that the weird conjecture I outline below is true:
But it deserves to be experimentally falsified.
Most scientifically literate readers will find the conjecture that sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions are the signature of phenomenal binding is simply absurd, or at least desperately counterintuitive. I certainly hope so: conjectures that predict merely that the sun will rise tomorrow don't readily lend themselves to empirical falsification.
So to answer Daniel's question, my working assumption is that all "holons", and only "holons" are conscious - and what counts as a "holon" is determined entirely by our best theory of the world, quantum field theory. [minus the mythical "collapse of the wave function"]
* * *
Life without binding:
("System Crashes Will Forestall the Robot Apocalypse")
* * *
("The fruit fly may know it's bugging you")
Clearly, we must prioritise. Comparisons are invidious, but a welfare state for insects is not high on our list of ethical priorities. However, tomorrow's utopian technology can in principle safeguard the well-being of even the humblest creatures. In the meantime, let focus on vertebrates, including humans.
* * *
Dave, I agree with you in my bones, so to speak, that dualism is a dead end. As a wave function monist (cf. Alyssa May and David Albert's "The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics"), IMO the ubiquity of the superposition principle in QM explains everything from the mystery of why anything exists at all (only the superposition principle of post-Everett QM is consistent with an informationless zero ontology; the information content of the universal anything-tor is zero: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf) to the properties of our bound phenomenal minds. (If the superposition principle broke down in the CNS, then the classical world-simulation that you run couldn't exist: you'd simply be patterns of discrete, decohered, neuronal mind-dust: a micro-experiential zombie.)
However, I wouldn't take such speculation too seriously in the absence of experimental confirmation / falsification that only next-generation molecular matter-wave interferometry can provide.
Miles, the failure of materialism (the "Hard Problem") and classical physics (the "Binding Problem") might tempt us to abandon realism too. But if one abandons realism, then it's hard to stop one's position collapsing into an uninteresting solipsism - or rather solipsism-of-the-here-and-now. Also, we want to explain the extraordinary cognitive success of science in some domains (e.g. the Standard Model in physics; Darwin and the Modern Synthesis in biology) as well as its catastrophic failure in others (i.e. we are neither p-zombies nor micro-experiential zombies). For my part, if the weird-sounding experimental prediction of my defence of non-materialist physicalism is falsified (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6), then I'll be floundering. Giving up monism, let alone realism, would give me the equivalent of an intellectual nervous breakdown. So much the worse for my mental health, some might say!)
"Everything you can imagine is real" (Picasso)
Christopher, alas some of us have dark imaginations.
* * *
David, yes, anything as complex as subjective intentionality is intuitively impossible if we imagine the CNS supports just patterns of discrete neuronal mind-dust [cf. 'Why Panpsychism doesn't Help Us Explain Consciousness", by Phil Goff] But this response reflects how we're still in thrall to classical physics. Instead of asking, "What's it's like to be Schrödinger's cat?", perhaps ask "What it's like to be in a "Schrödinger's cat state" of neurons? Unless the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the mind-brain, such individual macroscopic superpositions must exist. Next-generation molecular matter wave interferometry will decipher their tell-tale signature.
"So what?" - a critic might respond. Even if true, this doesn't entail the mind-brain is a quantum computer. And indeed, one's intuitive response to the question is to say that it's not subjectively like anything at all to instantiate a sub-femtosecond neuronal superposition! But such an intuitive response is forbidden if we assume that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
Critically, the scientific test of any physicalist panpsychist conjecture will be whether these experimentally detected neuronal superpositions implicate only the neurons that a standard connectionist neuroscience story says mediate the subject's currently reported state of mind e.g. "I can see my mother standing in front of me". Or instead, will all we discover be functionally irrelevant "noise" - in which case the conjecture will be experimentally falsified.
* * *
David Chalmers' challenge to physicalists (cf. including non-materialist physicalists http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) can be taken a purely "philosophical" challenge - or alternatively, as a scientific / experimental challenge, i.e. somehow to demonstrate the hidden match between formalism and phenomenology. But despite my own tentative physicalist belief that the formalism of [a recognisable descendant of] today's mathematical physics is closed and complete, i.e. no "element of reality" is missing from the mathematical machinery of a Theory of Everything, in another sense this physicalist "victory" - if it comes - will ring hollow. For in the absence of any kind of Rosetta stone to "read off" the textures of consciousness from the solutions to the equations, we are still just groping around in the dark. In that sense, I agree with David H. above: consciousness is utterly, indescribably weird. As our medium to understand anything at all, its properties infuse the propositional content of everything we think we know about the mind-independent world (cf. Nicholas Rescher's "Conceptual Idealism" http:// link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-94-011-0483-8_8#page-1)
Or as Einstein puts it more poetically, "What does a fish know of the water in which he swims?"
* * *
"P-zombies don't exist, therefore, science doesn't have to explain them." Jera, sorry, I fear my answer won't do your blood pressure any good, but here goes. Perhaps compare life and the properties of simple organic molecules. Clearly, molecules aren't alive. But molecular biology can explain how simple organic molecules configured in the right way can become a living breathing multicellular organism. No need to invoke a mysterious life-force or anything dualistic. Molecular biology reduces to quantum chemistry and chemistry to physics. Next consider your bound phenomenal mind. At least on an orthodox materialistic story, molecules lack consciousness. Yet configure a bunch of molecules in the right way and...voilà, we have a conscious subject of experience, capable of local and global phenomenal binding, a person who undergoes countless different flavours of experience. Some of these experiences even have the causal capacity to induce talk about their own existence, as now.
Like you, I don't think p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies are possible. Therefore science doesn't have to explain them. But science does need to explain the existence of consciousness, phenomenal binding, the properties of our different flavours of experience, and the causal capacity of consciousness to inspire talk about its own existence. Sadly, materialism has no idea how this is possible. Nada!
Unlike David Chalmers, I see no reason (yet!) to give up on physicalism. No "element of reality" is demonstrably missing from the formalism of physics - ultimately, the universal wave function. But as far as I can tell, both materialism and classical physics are false.
* * *
To stress: I’m not proposing any new physics – any modification or supplementation of the unitary dynamics à la Roger Penrose’s Orch-OR (etc) - just investigating whether natural selection has been able to harness states that physics says must exist, but which we standardly assume are phenomenally and computationally irrelevant. Are we super-robins?
One of the reasons that most people balk at the proposal that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical – the “fire” in the equations - is the powerful intuition that it makes the minimum “psychons” of experience too small. Yet the violence to our intuitions is worse: such a proposal makes the minimum psychons of experience ludicrously short-lived. But here’s where it gets interesting. Unless the unitary Schrödinger dynamics breaks down in the CNS, at sufficiently fine-grained timescales the biomolecules, neurons and indeed entire neuronal networks of the mind-brain can’t be considered as a discrete, decohered classical objects. If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then these individual quantum states are experiential. Awake or dreaming, you’re what a quantum computer feels like from the inside.
One often hears that the everyday world always looks classical; we never see superpositions of live-and-dead cats. Yet there’s a covert direct realism about perception at work here. Recall Bertrand Russell’s remark that we are never aware of anything but the inside of our own heads. Perhaps a precondition of our “seeing” anything at all is quantum coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-processors. Neuronal superpositions are what make an organism’s classical world-simulations feasible in the first place. On this story, your phenomenally-bound classical world-simulation is a sequence of neuronal “Schrödinger cat states” that natural selection has harnessed to track fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment.
Crazy stuff. What we need is experiment. Fortunately, when investigating whether or not phenomenal binding really does consist in neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors, we know exactly what we’re looking for – even if scarcely anyone expects to find it! By contrast, one problem with Orch-OR is that finding evidence of quantum coherence in microtubules isn’t going to persuade critics that the brain is a quantum computer – although Orch-OR is still a falsifiable scientific conjecture because it proposes modifying the unitary dynamics of QM.
As far as I can tell, the interferometry experiment I discuss using trained-up in vitro neuronal networks is ”clean”, i.e. a positive result would convince sceptics/critics, and a negative result would conclusively falsify the conjecture. But the experiment is still technically extremely demanding because thermally-induced decoherence [i.e. the rapid scrambling of complex phase amplitudes] is extremely fast and hard to control. I reckon there must be an easier way to confirm/falsify the phenomenal binding conjecture that quantum mind critics (and not just the open-minded) can agree in advance would settle the issue. Alas I haven’t been able to think of such a test.
[I’m sane enough realise the conjecture is probably mistaken. However, if neither quantum nor classical physics can explain phenomenal binding, where do we go next? ]
Do you "see things as they are" like John Searle or run a world-simulation? Perceptual realists miss our most extraordinary computational capacity.
("Seeing things as they are")
Is consciousness necessary for AI? Dirk, it depends. There are lots of problems for which consciousness is incidental or irrelevant. Equally, there are lots of problems, e.g. investigating the nature, varieties and binding of familiar and alien states of consciousness, for which being a subject of experience would seem essential. IMO, a lot of computer scientists and IT researchers rely on an impoverished conception of computation that forbids investigation of these problems. "Sorry, could you possibly reformulate your question in a way that a digital zombie can compute", says your friendly well-programmed futuristic robo-helper – an AI that can effortlessly solve numerous problems that leave naturally evolved organic robots for dust. Alas some cognitive challenges probably fall to humans and our transhuman and posthuman descendants - or possibly to futuristic non-biological quantum computers: I don't know.
* * *
Josh, first, some pedantry. It's tempting as you do to call neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors "infinitesimally brief, bound states" because sub-femtosecond, attosecond and even pan-cerebral zeptosecond phenomenal-binding times sound so rapid. But recall that such time-frames can also be viewed as incredibly protracted - well in excess of twenty orders of magnitude more extended than fundamental Planck-scale of chronology. Second, the idea that we can create simulated sentient beings - and that we might even be such simulated beings ourselves - rests on the assumption that phenomenal binding can occur at different levels of computational abstraction. And I'd want to ask how such strong emergence is possible if physicalism is true. Recall that the conjecture I'd like to see (experimentally) confirmed / falsified is that our bound phenomenal minds disclose one part of the "fire" in the equations - bedrock physical reality. Non-classical interference effects - most famously demonstrated in the double-slit experiment but also in principle demonstrable in organic macromolecules and neuronal superpositions - can't be faked. They are classically impossible to simulate, just as phenomenal binding is impossible classically to simulate. I guess these comments just highlight the need for experiment. Most attention in the quantum mind debate has been focused on the semi-classical Penrose Orch-OR model which proposes to modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. By contrast, physically credible decoherence times for neuronal superpositions in the CNS are normally reckoned as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind - not a prediction. And alas you can't argue with an incredulous stare.
"Perspectives on Russellian Monism" is not a title well suited to set our pulses racing; but the Introduction is readable online:
* * *
If the world were classical, it wouldn't look like anything to anyone. The mind-brain is not a digital zombie. We need a new root metaphor of mind. IMO each of us instantiates a quasi-classical world-simulation - what a naturally evolved quantum computer feels like "from the inside". But if next-generation interferometry falsifies this conjecture (cf. https://www.physicalism.com), I honestly don't know which way I'll turn. To Chalmersian dualism or to drink, possibly both.
[on social networks]
How many times have you quit Facebook?
Lots of good discussion groups e.g. Felicifia, have died IMO because Facebook taps into our reward circuitry as social primates more effectively than alternatives. It's not as though a "like" button pressed seven seconds after one’s FB posting has one cooing with delight - any more than taking a quick drag of a cigarette induces a euphoric high. But the cumulative effect is to hijack our reward circuitry. The routine habit of double-posting might seem to involve taking one's Facebook musings too seriously. But otherwise, all sorts of substantive contributions just get lost in a week or two.
Presumably there is customisable software to semi-automate the process?? Obviously not everything needs, or is suitable for, double-posting.
* * *
Truth? If someone goes to a social event and tells a participant he think that she's boring, stupid and ugly, we wouldn't commend his honesty but lament the pitfalls of having high AQ. By contrast, if one is writing, say, a referee's report on an bad academic journal paper submission, sometimes the only proper course is to say that the paper is rubbish and cause hurt feelings. The role of Facebook is changing, but it's still pre-eminently a social forum - and needs norms to match.
Guaranteeing Basic Income will be a lot easier than underwriting high self-esteem
How can transhumanist technologies deliver on Maslow's hierarchy of needs?
Naturally, I'm in favour of unlimited material abundance:
(cf. http://dw2blog.com/2015/05/21/anticipating-2040-the-triple-a-triple-h-vision/ "Anticipating 2040: The triple A, triple h+ vision")
But generating an unlimited abundance of status goods - attention, respect, and other zero-sum outcomes that social primates value so dearly - poses more of a challenge than creating molecular nanotech.
"Do Things Make You Happy, or Does Your Disposition. The admiration of others makes us want the things that we do.")
One limitation of contemporary transhumanism is the relative scarcity of good material on how to tackle our emotional needs. Full-spectrum transhumanism should be as compelling to women as men. Today, the male-female ratio of self-identified transhumanists runs at around 10 to 1.
* * *
Rodents and Facebook users: the mesolimbic dopamine system unites us all:
("Computer model explains how animals select actions with rewarding outcomes")
What's changed over the past half-billion years? Perhaps not as much as we might suppose...
("Dopamine boost restores libido in ageing male fruit flies")
Does the future of well-being lie in blissful serenity or dopaminergic overdrive?
("New theory integrates dopamine's role in learning, motivation")
Designer dopamine neurons: the dawn of hypermotivation?
Can we design superhuman willpower...
http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-12-discovery-dopamine-neurons.html ("Discovery puts designer dopamine neurons within reach")
"Normal" age-dependent dopamine cell loss of around 5% each decade of life means we'd all get Parkinson's disease if we lived long enough. Dopamine cell loss may also partly explain the decline in felt intensity of experience with advancing years.
Speedballing or nirvana? Just as we'll be able to choose our own hedonic range and approximate default hedonic set-point, likewise our default level of motivation - a sense of things-to-be-done - will be a biologically adjustable parameter too.
("The science of craving")
We won't have a complete explanation until we can explain phenomenal binding. And there are lots of complications. For example, around half of people with the "dopamine deficiency disorder", Parkinson's disease, are clinically depressed; indeed depression often precedes the locomotor signs normally diagnostic of the disorder. On a more positive note, the well-defined location of our twin "hedonic hotspots" ought to make effective treatments of depression easier - and as a bonus, allow the engineering of life based on superhuman bliss. When will we decipher the molecular signature of pure pleasure?
("Ending chronic pain with new drug therapy")
* * *
Marija. Yes, it's frustrating. "Instinctive" or "preprogrammed" responses are often assumed to be somehow "less conscious" than original thinking and the cognitive processes needed to produce flexible behaviour. But perhaps compare the relative intensity of experience needed to write - and to understand - this novel sentience with the intensity of experience triggered by, say, catching your hand in the door, and the stereotyped behavioural responses such a painful stimulus provokes...
Consciousness and intelligence shouldn't be confused.
Can we use biotech to engineer high self-esteem for all?
("Braggers Gonna Brag, But It Usually Backfires")
People love and respect themselves - and each other - on MDMA. Alas replicating such a biology (and social dynamic) on a sustainable basis will be quite challenge.
* * *
My worst time-sinks:
DP on Google +
DP on Facebook
The neurological basis of the disorder:
("What Facebook Addiction Looks Like in the Brain")
* * *
Can personal relationships be turned into one of the exact sciences?
("Why we've all fallen head-over-heels for the 36 questions that promise true love")
Relationships today can cause at least as much suffering (and intermittently pleasure) as a heroin habit. I'd like to imagine a future where everyone loves everybody (shades of MDMA). Alas this isn't a plea for universal polyamory right now - or at least not without some serious genetic tweaking - because huge numbers of people aren't biologically designed for it.
Can the science of love spawn an engineering technology of love?
("The science of love: It really is all in the mind, say experts")
Yes, love is subjective. But for reasons we simply don't understand, it's an (objective) fact about the natural world that it contains first-person facts. And biotechnology promises the ability to make these first-facts person generically pleasant - perhaps sublimely so.
Once bitten, twice shy or forever smitten?
("Why memories of your first love could affect who you MARRY: Early girlfriends and boyfriends influence who we find attractive in later life")
Run up bad debts and have more sex? Can credit rating agencies replace OkCupid?
("It's Official: Credit Scores Can Predict Relationship Success")
Who sponsors these studies, I wonder.
* * *
Today, taking MDMA ("Ecstasy") induces a sense of "I love the world and the world loves me". When "loved up" on a hug-drug like MDMA, the OCD-like, low-serotonin, jealous-possessive love of traditional pair-bonding is absent: MDMA releases a flood of serotonin and oxytocin as well as dopamine. How much research is going on to design safe and sustainable analogues of MDMA? Zero.
The oxytocin solution...
("Oxytocin nose-drop brings marmoset partners closer")
Can we enhance social intelligence?
("'Love hormone' oxytocin could be used to treat mental health problems")
[on free-living nonhuman animals]
The idea that sentient beings shouldn't harm each other, or allow each other to come to harm, was once purely utopian. Later this century and beyond, the policy option will be technically feasible. Sociological credibility is another issue. But a plea of "There is no alternative" is no longer technically or ethically correct.
How did the Darwinian horror story begin?
("Chemists claim to have solved riddle of how life began on Earth")
Nicolaus, we wouldn't call preventing human toddlers from starving to death, or being asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive, a "fetish", but rather a moral obligation. Likewise, we shouldn't trivialise the prevention of suffering in nonhuman animals of comparable sentience to human toddlers with a term like “fetish” either. Non-human animal suffering is appalling and preventable. Also, let's distinguish an end to natural selection from an end to selection pressure. Selection pressure against a lot of our nastier alleles is shortly likely to intensify, not slacken, in human and nonhuman animals alike. This is because intelligent agents will increasingly pre-select alleles and allelic combinations in anticipation of their likely psychological and behavioural effects. And just as family planning averted seemingly inescapable Malthusian catastrophe in humans – confounding prophets of inevitable ecological collapse - likewise intelligent use of cross-species immunocontraception to regulate fertility in tomorrow's wildlife parks can prevent over-population. In short, how much suffering – if any – we want to sustain in the rest of the living world is up to us.
Nicolaus, insofar as you're urging intensive research before compassionate intervention, I completely agree with you! Sadly, complete certainty about the benefits of intervention – whether on behalf members of other races or other species – will always be elusive. All we can do is act on the basis of risk-benefit analysis. Let's recall that humans already intervene – massively – in the rest of the living world, whether through uncontrolled habitat destruction, “rewilding”, captive breeding programs for big cats and so forth. So the choice isn't between interference and non-interference, but rather what ethical principle(s) – if any - should guide our interventions. Should we keep the ideology of traditional conservation biology, which gives no moral weight to preventing the suffering of individuals, or instead aim for an ethic of compassionate stewardship?
Insects? IMO we need to be cautious about stating one species suffers more than another species in virtue of the greater biomass of its members. A species is a taxonomic abstraction, not a subject of experience. Also, the upper bounds of insect distress are unclear. Thus a locust head-segment may sometimes keep on feeding while the tail is being devoured by a predator – a scenario unthinkable in vertebrates. Without a central nervous system, there can be no unity of consciousness - no distress above-and-beyond the consciousness of individual nerve ganglia. So in my view, we are entitled ethically to prioritise vertebrates before truly utopian technology allows the well-being of every nerve ganglion to be safeguarded later this century and beyond.
Robert, yes, there is a sliding-scale of urgency and obligation. Perhaps we may differ(?) slightly on whether there is a moral obligation to prevent “mild” suffering. I agree the worst forms of suffering are in a different league. Their abolition should clearly be our main focus. But what then?
* * *
John, fundamentalism is a religious movement favouring the strict and literal interpretation of scripture. To use the term for secular bioethicists is not helpful: to have fundamental principle(s) is not the same as being a fundamentalist. Compassionate stewardship of Nature, let alone the long-term goal of phasing out the biology of (involuntary) experience below "hedonic zero", does not entail creating new kinds of suffering - though if botched it could do so. Hence the need for exhaustive research and deliberation. "Extinction"? Well, one can always stipulatively define a lion - or a human - who no longer harms others as no longer "truly" a lion - or “truly” a human. But such wordplay is uninteresting: the claim becomes true by definition. "Unpredictable"? Whether phasing out smallpox or predation, we cannot know all the long-term consequences. But that is poor reason to perpetuate their existence.
* * *
Not if one identifies with mice:
("Not-so-guilty pleasure: Viewing cat videos boosts energy and positive emotions")
* * *
First Switzerland, tomorrow the world...
* * *
The devil does not wear horns:
("'Our Animal Hell' by Robert Pogue Harrison")
* * *
Eva, if famine breaks out in sub-Saharan Africa, how should we respond to a critic who says, "I think it is terrible arrogance and over-estimation of Western knowledge to think we can or even should intervene in large-scale suffering of members of ethnic groups"? Would allowing Ethiopians to starve represent greater humility on our part?
Instead, we'd agree (I hope) that the developed world would be morally bound to offer both famine relief and support with family planning. Washing our hands of the unfolding tragedy with an appeal to the unforeseeable ecological consequences of intervention would be a cop-out. The same principle is at stake in tomorrow's wildlife parks - though cross-species fertility regulation would most likely involve immunocontraception.
Could anything go wrong? Yes! This is why we need systematic research into what compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world entails.
* * *
Some might say "compassionate conservation" is a contradiction in terms. In what guise might a benevolent superintelligence want to conserve Homo sapiens - rather than retire us?
* * *
Is phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering (1) ethically desirable? (2) technically feasible? (3) sociologically credible?
Jera, let's agree "yes" to (1) and (2) - though even with an unlimited budget, CRISPR genome-editing and a UN mandate a century or more of technically challenging work would lie ahead.
The challenge is (3). There is no global consensus, no unlimited budget, no UN mandate.
So what's the best way forward? No doubt some movements benefit from strong leaders with messianic delusions; it's not going to happen with HI.
What we can do, more modestly, is try to promote awareness and debate on everything from in vitro meat to the desirability of global free access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling.
When I wrote HI (late 1995) I predicted that several centuries of involuntary suffering still lie ahead - perhaps more.
I'm as excited as anyone by talk of e.g. imminent post-human superintelligence. But the ethical and ideological obstacles - and prevalence of status quo bias - should make us extremely sceptical of anyone who promises salvation in our lifetime.
Kudos to e.g. Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey and anyone else who persuades an audience they are going to live to see the Promised Land (short of cryonics) - and gets the funding to deliver. My chronology is more pessimistic. Let's hope such pessimism is mistaken.
* * *
No one gets bored of bliss. No one finds bliss meaningless. But for physiological reasons of adaptation, plenty of people report no longer enjoying the effects of (initially) euphoriant drugs. Either way (and please forgive me for labouring the point) I'm not arguing for a world of constant bliss - or indeed for coercive well-being. Rather, no sentient being should have to suffer against their will after states below "hedonic zero" become technically optional.
Agreed Sergio: sentient beings shouldn't harm each other. What was once an empty piety will shortly become a technically feasible policy option. The very idea of a "predator" - human or non-human - deserves to be banished to the history books.
Darren, Mercifully, we (probably) won't need a deep understanding of consciousness in order to phase out the biology of suffering. We need merely to understand the necessary and sufficient conditions for its occurrence - or maybe only the necessary and sufficient conditions for phenomenal binding. Without phenomenal binding, the world's minimal "psychons" of consciousness would presumably be ethically trivial. One big challenge is digital sentience. As you know from reading e.g. https://www.physicalism.com, I argue that classical digital computers will never be subjects of experience. But it's wise to be open-minded and acknowledge one could be catastrophically mistaken. After all, some very smart people disagree.
* * *
Should we use biotech and IT to create a happy biosphere?
("Should we intervene in nature to prevent animal suffering?" by Catia Faria)
It's great that the "meme" is spreading. Alas releasing baby turtles to the ocean safely may not be effective altruism in its most hard-headed guise.
* * *
Martyn, I have no more "acolytes" than mistresses. However, a growing minority of people do recognise that biotech can - in principle - phase out the biology of suffering. Anyhow, I wonder: do we really have a substantive disagreement here? Or is the issue more of a semantic dispute? Compare: on discovering a tribe of cannibalistic head-hunters, one group of ethnographers claims that intervention will destroy the tribe's identity, rob its members of their ethnic traditions, and lead to the extinction of an entire form of life. The other group of ethnographers urges that the cannibals and their victims alike will benefit from dietary reform - and that talk of “extinction”, “cultural genocide” (etc) is needlessly apocalyptic.
Which side is linguistically correct? I'm not sure there is an objective answer. However, both of us agree that the world is ethically better off without cannibalism. Likewise, I hope I can persuade you that the world will be better off without the terrible experiences of asphyxiation, disembowelment and being eaten alive.
* * *
Martyn, this is precisely why I don't think we should be prioritising the dietary habits of penguins. But flash forward to next century and beyond. Aging, disease, low mood and suffering of any kind are biologically optional. The last factory-farm and slaughterhouse has been shut - superseded by mass-produced, flavour-enhanced, in vitro gourmet meat products. Large, long-lived vertebrates graze contentedly in our wildlife parks. What about traditional marine ecosystems, insofar as their fauna has survived the 21st century? Well, maybe our successors will be unregenerate species essentialists who decide, in a spirit of bioconservatism, that there are “acceptable” levels of involuntary suffering. But I wouldn't count on it.
The optimal level of involuntary suffering in the world is zero.
* * *
Günther, my personal view is similar to Adriano's. Life on Earth to date has been a half-billion-year horror story. Instead of "rewilding" and other “conservation” initiatives, I'd allow all sorts of species to go extinct in the wild – in effect, phasing out Mother Nature altogether. But politics, as they say, is the art of the possible. This bleak view of life tends to appal most people. By contrast, the prospect of compassionate stewardship of tomorrow's wildlife parks is (IMO) at least potentially saleable - despite the incredulity the proposal initially elicits from most people.
An analogous point could be made of humans. I might personally agree with David Benatar ("Better Never to Have Been") But ethically speaking, it's a complete waste of time arguing for human extinction through voluntary childlessness (not least because of what might be called the Argument From Selection Pressure). By contrast, the case for using biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary human suffering is at least potentially saleable - despite once again the incredulity that the proposal initially evokes.
Obviously, what is - and what isn't – sociologically credible later this century and beyond is a judgement call.
What do you reckon?
* * *
Günther, recall I was arguing against pursuing any Benatarian proposal for voluntary human extinction. All that remaining childless (or adopting children) does is impose selection pressure against a predisposition to be socially responsible, which is self-defeating. The future belongs to life lovers. (IMO) anyone who cares about reducing - and ultimately phasing out - the biology of involuntary suffering (whether or not they are formally a NU, Buddhist, or whatever) should accept this background assumption as axiomatic.
Should David Benatar commit suicide?
David, presumably David Benatar would argue that he can do more good by continuing to walk the Earth propounding his views than by taking his own life. My main worry with anti-natalists, Benatarians, negative utilitarians (and so forth) isn't with the bleakness of their diagnosis. Rather, it's the risk of distraction from practical solutions. Phasing out the biology of suffering will most likely be achieved by dynamic life-lovers rather than depressive fatalists. Most people would probably agree with Woody Allen: "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon." Choosing not to have children, and perhaps adopting instead, might seem the responsible way forward. However, by choosing not to have children, we impose even stronger selection pressure in favour of the predisposition to "go forth and multiply"; and conversely, strong selection pressure against any predisposition to be ethically responsible. For evolutionary reasons, one source of immense misery today is involuntary childlessness. We witness the extraordinary lengths that some childless couples will go to in order to have children. For better or worse, human extinction via voluntary childlessness seems a pipe-dream.
So what is the solution? Any policy proposal to end suffering worldwide must be both technically feasible and sociologically realistic. For the first time in history, mastery of our genetic source code in principle allows one uniquely intelligent species to phase out the biology of suffering, initially in humans, but ultimately throughout the living world. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling, followed by true genetic engineering, can potentially impose strong and intensifying selection pressure against genes predisposing to misery and malaise, and in favour of genes predisposing to gradients of bliss.
Perhaps the biggest obstacles to such a genetic revolution are ideological - and simple status quo bias. Yet unlike species suicide, such a policy option isn't inherently sociologically incredible, at least in the longer term. Let's agree: today, coming into existence may always or typically involve harm. Yet in future, there is no technical reason why life can't be inherently wonderful - and perhaps sublime.
* * *
The parasite in question can also induce toxic psychosis
("Woman Overjoyed By Giant Uterine Parasite")
("Save The Parasites")
Surely the reductio ad absurdum of traditional conservation biology. For the first time in history, intelligent moral agents have the capacity to design a biosphere where sentient beings don't harm each other. Promoting parasitism is a step in the wrong direction.
* * *
Nicolaus, humans are already doing far more than "tinkering" with Nature. We are intervening on a massive scale. So what ethical principles should guide our interventions? Why shouldn't these principles include the indefinite reduction of suffering in members of other species as well as other races?
The ecological consequences of, say, phasing out malaria-transmitting species of Anopheles mosquito could be profound. Malaria has killed around half the humans who ever lived (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/2002/021003/full/news021001-6.html) Would you oppose such an initiative on the grounds that the Earth is not a laboratory nor a simulation with an "undo" button?
Zachary, no one is proposing to go on with a syringe to vaccinate mosquitoes. Immunocontraception in elephants differs from mass sterilants for malaria-transmitting species of Anopheles mosquito, which in turn differs from the premeditated use of contraception by prospective human parents. But regardless of species, there is always a limiting factor on the growth of population size. And that factor can involve more or less suffering.
* * *
Zachary, the standard zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine isn't a virus. Rather, it's a naturally occurring biodegradable protein used successfully to regulate fertility in everything from free-living elephants to feral horses to wild deer. I am unclear why you believe that malaria-transmitting species of Anopheles mosquito have reproductive rights. Mosquitoes don't suffer from not passing on their genes, whereas the protozoan parasite they transmit is a source of immense suffering to millions of human and nonhuman animals alike. In principle, there is no reason why biotech can't deliver the well-being of all sentience later this century and beyond. Whether intelligent agents opt to preserve the biology of involuntary suffering will ultimately be a question of ethical choice.
* * *
Nicolaus, let's recall that every case of sexual reproduction is a genetically unique and untested experiment. None of us can “prove” that any of our actions won't have unforeseen consequences. All we can do is try to weigh risk-reward ratios. Why do you believe that preimplantation genetic screening is more likely to lead to a bad outcome than a genetic crapshoot? It's not as though natural selection has optimised living organisms for subjective well-being. Why deny nonhuman animals all the benefits of the fertility regulation now enjoyed by most humans?
Cost? There's no need for resources to be diverted away from humans to non-humans. Rather, resources currently used in everything from rewilding to captive breeding programs and other “conservation” initiatives could instead be targeted at safeguarding the well-being or individual non-humans. I share many of your dark views about human victims of oppression; but such a concern is no reason to discount the plight of sentient beings from other species.
That said, so long as humans systematically exploit and abuse billions of nonhuman animals on factory-farms, this debate is a bit moot. Before we can realistically start helping sentient beings, we must stop systemically harming them. Shutting and outlawing factory farms and slaughterhouses presumably comes first.
* * *
Stderr, yes, Nature "works". Disease, parasitism, predation and (above all) starvation have traditionally kept the population of human and nonhuman animals in check. But fertility regulation is more civilised - as witnessed by the demographic transition in human populations. The same principles of cross-species fertility regulation can be used in tomorrow's wildlife parks too. Humans already "meddle" with Nature on a colossal scale. What's in question here is the ethical principles - if any - that should guide of interventions. At one extreme, "Pleistocene re-wilding". At the other extreme, high-tech Jainism and a pan-species welfare state. Should we try to reduce the burden of suffering in the living world or not? For the first time in history, biotech gives us the opportunity to choose.
* * *
Mittens for koalas?
Yes, good, but a pan-species welfare state will need to be planned.
Kosta, perhaps compare de-beaked, declawed, tail-docked, castrated or otherwise mutilated factory-farmed nonhumans. Imagine if we launched an appeal to help them instead.
Are humans as sentient as sperm whales?
("The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins")
* * *
Nicolaus, if we are ethically serious about phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering, then some form of preimplantation genetic screening - and ultimately full-blown genetic engineering - is presumably inevitable in human and non-human animals alike. I may have misunderstood you as being opposed in principle to the technologies of PGS. If so, apologies.
Consent? Neither human toddlers nor nonhuman animals of comparable sentience and sapience are capable of signing written consent forms. But complications aside, all sentient beings make it abundantly clear they do not wish to be harmed. Toddlers and zebras do not wish to starve - or be disembowelled, asphyxiated or eaten alive. As technology permits, their interests and wishes deserve to be respected accordingly. Hence stewardship - which can be wise or inept, for sure.
A “food source”? Humans do not need to hurt, harm or kill other sentient beings in order to flourish. Ethically, no doubt it's preferable that toddlers and nonhuman animals of comparable sentience and sapience are kept and killed with less cruelty rather than more. Yet why do our fellow creatures need to be harmed at all? In my view, humans need to make the switch from harming to actively helping other sentient beings. This is not possible if we kill them because we like their taste.
A principle worth extending...
("Police order all cows in Indian district to be photographed to stop people eating them")
* * *
("An estimated 100,000 people die every year from snake bites and 400,000 disabled or disfigured")
A form of Darwinian life well suited for retirement IMO.
"You would rather eradicate snakes than re-engineer them to be harmless?" Alexander, I'd re-engineer them. Humans too. Species essentialists might object that venomous snakes re-engineered so as not to cause harm wouldn't truly belong to the same species. The same might be said of re-engineered humans. But the medical feasibility (if moral folly) of backcrosses in each case would seem to scotch the objection. What do you reckon?
* * *
Does the world need more predators?
("Lynx could roam our woods again: Experts want wild cat reintroduced after 1,300 years to help control the deer population")
Yes, the only serious threat to life and limb from our native fauna comes on Friday night after the pubs shut. We just need to extend the civilising process - not throw it into reverse.
Or Better Living Through Genetically Preprogrammed Gradients of Bliss?
("Better Living Through Conservation Genetics")
Meet the people who want to turn predators into herbivores
("Meet the people who want to turn predators into herbivores")
Genes, alleles and their frequencies change over time. For example, most non-African humans carry around 1 to 3% Neanderthal DNA: the total amount in modern humans is around 20%. Such genetic change isn't inherently good or bad. Rather, what matters ethically is the consequences of such change. Thus I know of no inherent moral advantage to being an obligate carnivore than to being an obligate rapist. Both behaviours involve coercion or its threat. That said, if we do want to advocate some form of genetic species essentialism for members of the cat family, catnip-flavoured in vitro meat is an option.
Spiders and flies? The well-being or ill-being of invertebrates is presumably a task for our successors – though "gene drives" and the CRSIPR revolution shows how we needn't wait to posthuman utopia or even mature nanotechnology.
* * *
The cost of in vitro meat is collapsing. Time for an accelerated roll-out:
("Cost of lab-grown burger patty drops from $325,000 to $11.36")
* * *
And what if nonhuman animals suffer like babies? Let's hope in vitro meat hits the supermarket shelves soon.
Regional variants of the Paleo diet aren't much better.
("Nigerian restaurant shut down for ‘serving human flesh'")
* * *
Hoshi, perhaps recall the Bible - and more specifically Isaiah, on how the lion and the wolf will lie down with the lamb. No, the Bible doesn't explicitly describe the CRISPR revolution in biotech and the compassionate use of cross-species immunocontraception to regulate population sizes in our wildlife parks. But the outcome is potentially the same.
Hoshi, the Garden of Eden of Eden was vegetarian before the Fall. Sinful humans have killed animals ever since. When the Bible prophesies the lion and the wolf will lie down with the lamb, Isaiah wasn't insinuating that obligate carnivores would develop a cunning new stalking routine to deceive their victims - or at least, only on an extremely strained interpretation of the sacred text. In short, freedom not to be harmed is very different from freedom to harm others.
* * *
Four policy options:
1) "Pleistocene rewilding" - restoring much of the planet to its state before the human impact.
2) The status quo - essentially an extension of existing conservation biology: more wildlife parks, minimal intervention - conservation with no regard to the subjective well-being of individuals, just the abstract health of species and ecosystems.
3) Compassionate biology, ultimately extending to all free-living sentients: cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception, genetic tweaking and/or in vitro meat for obligate carnivores, a pan-species welfare state in tomorrow's Nature reserves, in short, "high-tech Jainism".
4) Phasing out free-living nonhuman sentients altogether ("Why improve nature when destroying it is so much easier?
What should be the favoured long-term option of anyone who believes that intelligent ethical agents have a duty to minimise - or phase out altogether - the biology of involuntary suffering?
Options (1) and (2) entail (at least) as much suffering as exists today. So the obvious policy option for anyone who prioritises the reduction of suffering might seem (4) - minus any suggestion of mass killing: mass-sterilisation alone would presumably suffice.
However, one thing that unites (almost) all animal lovers, conservation biologists, policy makers and the general public at large is a desire to preserve free-living "charismatic megafauna" and Nature - or at least extensive wildlife parks.
Is it sociologically realistic to expect a moral revolution in such attitudes?
This leaves option (3). No, I don't know if compassionate stewardship of tomorrow's Nature reserves is sociologically realistic either. One reason not to discount its sociological plausibility altogether is that most people are inconsistent - which leaves scope for triggering cognitive dissonance. The majority of people oppose "interference" with Nature in the abstract. Yet consider most people's response if on TV (or in the Daily Mail) the camera dwells on some photogenic nonhuman animal in distress. Viewers are indignant - sometimes extremely indignant - if the camera team doesn't intervene to help. The global telecommunications revolution and IT turn the whole planet into an intimate life-and-death spectacle. Just as the Colosseum was eventually closed, so can wildlife snuff movies be ended eventually too.
* * *
("Will animals of the future only be safe in captivity?")
“In captivity” sounds dreadful. One imagines forlorn-looking creatures gazing out from behind bars at a zoo. We need to popularise what might otherwise sound a pedantic distinction between wild and free-living. Humans flourish best when neither “wild” nor incarcerated. So do nonhumans. Of course, we’re really talking about a continuum. But a simplistic trichotomy (wild vs free-living vs captive) is better than a simplistic dichotomy (wild versus captive).
[Jeffrey, I wrote e.g.
before the CRISPR revolution in biotech exploded
But IMO its core point still stands. Compassionate biology for free-living but not wild nonhuman animals is technically feasible. Ultimately, its (non-)adoption is a question of (un)ethical choice.
Completing the abolitionist project on Earth will entail penetrating deep into the phylogenetic tree.
("Flies share basic elements of human fear – but is it emotion?")
Any decent scientific theory of consciousness and phenomenal binding should make novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions:
("How much consciousness does an octopus have?")
[on suicide and assisted euthanasia]
The tip of an iceberg of suffering. Both short-term fixes and a long-term solution are needed:
Psychedelics? Taneli, perhaps, but she might well have a nightmarish bad trip. Opioids (as used in hospice care) might be a better solution IMO. But what we really need long term IMO is routine global preimplantation genetic screening for mood disorders, not just "physical" disorders...
("If genetic screening helps those at risk, why not screen everyone?")
Transhumanists normally focus on the plight of the millions of people for whom life is too short. But IMO, we have an equal responsibility to avoid creating people for whom life is too long - and this can't be done without world-wide free access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling for all prospective parents. Talk of a "depression gene" is as simplistic as talk of a "happiness gene". Yet we do know that mood disorders have a high degree of genetic loading. All responsible policy proposals should be properly costed. Critically for practical politics, preimplantation genetic screening is (extremely) cost-effective. Bipolar disorder, depression and sub-clinical low mood are a huge burden on the global economy. Unlike true genetic engineering, preimplantation genetic screening and diagnosis does not involve the hot-potato issue of editing the human germ-line - (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-edit-the-human-germ-line-1.17111) - essential if suffering is ever to be eradicated altogether, but not practical politics today.
Taneli, to anyone who urges extreme caution and exhaustive risk-benefit analysis when using preimplantation genetic screening, I can only say: "Yes!" It's the typical over-hasty inference to "And until we can be sure of the outcome, we should continue to play genetic roulette" that needs critical examination. In the case of alleles and allelic combinations conferring a (conditionally activated) predisposition to low mood, not just heterozygote advantage, but homozygote advantage may have been real in the ancestral environment of adaptation. Low mood is associated with behavioural suppression. If you're a delta-minus social primate on the African savannah, then a biological predisposition to "keep your head down" and ruminate a lot can be fitness-enhancing - despite the ghastly psychological costs to the individual. What's important is to stress how the potential homozygote and homozygote advantage we are talking about here is genetic, i.e. we are not weighing the (dis) advantage to the lifetime subjective well-being or ill-being of the individual.
[on coffee and opioid peptides]
Psychoactive coffee: what's your optimal mix of opioids and psychostimulants?
("Brazil finds coffee protein with morphine effect")
and mood-brightening MAO inhibitor:
("Human monoamine oxidase enzyme inhibition by coffee and beta-carbolines norharman and harman isolated from coffee.")
Weak and reversible MAOIs are normally harmless mood-brighteners, quite common in Nature. Exaggerated fear of the "cheese effect", i.e. hypertensive crises prompted by failure to observe an MAOI diet, means that many doctors are still scared to try prescribing an EMSAM (selegiline) patch even to "treatment-resistant" depressives. According to one study of nurses, coffee drinkers are half as likely to commit suicide - though whether coffee's role as a weak reversible MAOI plays any role is unknown.
* * *
Intake of the ideal pleasure drug will be self-optimising
Rodney, critical, I guess, will be agents that have a "therapeutic window", like coffee or nicotine gum. Can we imagine an agent that offers a much higher level of well-being - but for which the brain still titrates optimal dosage (rather than being liable to runaway dose escalation)?
* * *
Unlike unpleasant experience, the wellsprings of pure bliss in the CNS appear to be well-localised. The twin human "hedonic hotspots" in the ventral palladium and the rostromedial shell of the nucleus accumbens are only around a cubic centimetre each in size. Unfortunately, I don't know if Kent Berridge and his colleagues are investigating the distinctive gene expression profiles of these extraordinary neurons:
("Neuroscience of affect: brain mechanisms of pleasure and displeasure")
The problem of physiological tolerance and the peripheral side-effects of opioids should all be technically fixable. More challenging for social primate society is how opioid use makes users emotionally self-sufficient. I almost wrote - judgementally - "selfish". But it's not as though those of us who rely on environmental triggers for endogenous opioid release are motivationally different from junkies. We would all - literally and metaphorically - crawl through the gutter if it were the only way to get our fix. Rather than beating ourselves up about the existence of the pleasure principle, perhaps the best we can do is work with the grain of human nature and ensure all that all sentient beings get what they need.
* * *
We demonise opioids, but without them, life would not be worth living.
Depressed people release less pain- and stress-reducing endogenous opioids:
("Rejection Seems to Hurt Depressed People Longer")
My daily regimen of 10 cups of strong black coffee, two or three sugar-free Red Bulls, 200mg of amineptine and 2 x 5mg selegiline would leave some folk feeling quite lively. But this cocktail just about keeps me sentient.
"The powers of a man's mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.” (James Mackintosh)
Not quite true alas or else I'd be on my way to Stockholm.
But selegiline (l-deprenyl) may be safer and more sustainable than amphetamine...
("Study finds connection between age-related cognitive decline and dopamine levels")
[on free will]
But what was time-lag between the virtual clock in the subject's world-simulation and the mind-independent clock it tracked?
("Is Free Will Just An Illusion?")
* * *
Only physicists who accept Everett (or buy into some “hidden variables” theory) would claim that quantum mechanics is deterministic. Anyone who still subscribes to the philosophical positivism of Copenhagen, or believes in so called “dynamical collapse” theories, would argue QM is indeterministic. Fortunately, this isn't just a “philosophical” question. Any departure from the (deterministic) unitary evolution of the Schrödinger equation would have empirical consequences – and we just don't find them, not yet at any rate
or the nontechnical papers of
Although I don't think free will can be rescued, if I had to play devil's advocate, I might suggest that the values of the fundamental physical parameters that define our world are the collective outcome of the behaviour of all agents - with a posthuman superbeing playing a greater role than a mouse. Recall that unlike most researchers, I take seriously the possibility that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. So it's not the case that, when you decide to lift your hand, a non-experiential process is causing a physical process.
Though determinism is often associated with the idea of predictability, they are distinct notions. Quite aside from the field of so-called deterministic chaos, all sorts of predictions one can make of reflective agents are either self-fulfilling or self-falsifying even in a deterministic non-chaotic universe...
* * *
We might usefully distinguish quantum mind theories that do or don't invoke a physically real collapse of the wave function. Penrose and Hameroff Orch-OR are dynamical collapse theorists. Another distinction is between theorists who believe that experience exists at the most fundamental level in Nature (e.g. Hameroff); and theorists who believe consciousness arises only above a certain threshold – in Penrose's case, a quantum gravity threshold.
Another useful distinction between quantum mind theories is precisely what problem quantum mind conjectures are supposed to solve. Penrose, as befits a mathematician, focuses on the alleged ability of smart humans to know the truth of Gödel-unprovable statements. But other quantum mind theorists focus on the other “end” of the phylogenetic tree, namely on the apparent classical impossibility of local and global phenomenal binding.
(cf. http://www.neuroquantology.com/index.php/journal/article/view/33 - "The Cognitive Binding Problem: From Kant to Quantum Neurodynamics")
Fortunately, all these theories should eventually be empirically falsifiable - though dynamical collapse theories will be easier to falsify experimentally than conjectures that don't modify the unitary dynamics. There is no guarantee that Nature will be kind enough to allow our all conjectures to be empirically tested. But it would be good if all parties to the debate could work on devising novel, experimentally testable predictions that believers AND critics alike can agree would falsify - or vindicate - their pet theory.
* * *
Saving locality carries a high price:
("Bell Inequality and Many-Worlds Interpretation")
[on love and jealousy]
Affective psychosis has ancient evolutionary roots:
("Research on jealousy: Impact of sexual vs. emotional infidelity")
* * *
The Selfish Ribosome?
("Forget the selfish gene: Evolution of life is driven by the selfish ribosome, research suggests")
* * *
Free will? Kristofer, you have no real choice whether to withdraw your hand from the fire. By the same token, a mirror-touch synaesthete has no real choice whether to help you withdraw your hand from the flame, so to speak. Leaving your hand to burn would be like harming herself. We've no good grounds for believing that the perspective-taking capacities of a full-spectrum superintelligence will be inferior to a mirror-touch synaesthete. If so, non-friendliness towards other sentience may be just one aspect of the autism spectrum disorder endemic to Darwinian life.
Alas some monsters are real.
("Could this video game make you VEGETARIAN? Players control a cow that runs an abattoir which slaughters humans...Ludum Dare challenged developers to create a game in 48 hours with the brief: 'You are the monster' In Mr Botkov's That Cow Game, the player is a cow in a human abattoir. Humans are strung up on hooks are can be toyed with and butchered")
Will our grandchildren understand what we did and why?
("Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history") The only debate we should be having should be between vegetarian, quasi-vegan and vegan. Ending the industrialised animal abuse of factory-farming and slaughterhouses is a precondition for a civilised society. Like homeopaths who swear they notice the difference between "natural" Vitamin C and its nasty chemical cousin, some folk will insist they notice the difference between amino acids derived from animal flesh and amino acids derived from plants. In both cases, the distinction is unknown to medical science.
* * *
Would sentience-friendly superintelligence want to preserve humans or retire us?
("U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit")
McDonalds launches "Day of Joy":
Perhaps compare "Arbeit macht frei".
* * *
Misplaced worries about “anthropomorphism” can be ethically catastrophic. There is no scientific evidence that the development of the vertebrate lineage has been marked by greater intensities of feeling, but rather its ever-richer “encephalisation”. Compare how the Cartesians believed that the “distress vocalisations” of the dogs they vivisected were the mechanical responses of insentient automata. Fish can't howl in agony. Yet a convergence of evidence suggests they suffer as they writhe. Perhaps consider blind panic – an exceedingly ancient response. Its uncontrollable intensity isn't the product of sophisticated meta-cognitive processing in the neocortex, but rather the absence or breakdown of any capacity for self-reflection. A nicer example is orgasm, when much of the neocortex effectively shuts down.
("Fish may actually feel pain and react to it much like humans")
* * *
The claim that we are ethically entitled to hurt, harm and kill other sentient beings if we judge they lack the "potential" to become sapient can be used to rationalise the abuse of human and nonhuman animals alike. A (supposedly) irredeemable lack of sapience does not justify killing one's political or religious opponents, nor handicapped children or the very old. Nor does it justify harming sentient beings who lack generative syntax until they are "uplifted" with the relevant allele of the FOXP2 gene. Becoming transman will entail overcoming our baser appetites - a long journey, I fear.
Measuring the capacity of sentient beings to suffer not an exact science. But the genes, anatomical substrates and neurotransmitter pathways that mediate pain, pleasure and core emotions are almost identical in toddlers and pigs. Of course, pigs are not literally identical to human toddlers: for example, they lack the variant of the FOXP2 gene implicated in the later development of generative syntax. But there is no evidence that such subtle genetic differences shape the capacity to suffer. Indeed, it's possible that nonhuman animals with larger pain centres (cf. the sperm whale) may sometimes suffer more than adult humans. Either way, we're not considering some difficult moral dilemma - e.g. should I save a two pigs or one toddler of comparable sentience from a burning building? - but rather the question of whether to stop harming sentient beings for frivolous reasons. Preferring the taste of a hamburger to a veggieburger doesn't qualify as a challenging moral dilemma.
* * *
Bad - but killing and eating one's victims is worse:
("Man jailed for 'sexual incident' with a Shetland pony")
Martyn, are strict vegans who take Vitamin B12 supplements somehow less human than vegetarians and meat-eaters? And if we are so, does it matter ethically? Either way, the stuff I write isn't really intended to sway folk who don't think we should phase out the biology of involuntary suffering. Rather it's designed to explore different scenarios of what such a radical abolitionist ethic entails.
How does one defend the indefensible?
* * *
Kevin, for evolutionary reasons, humans have a (conditionally activated) predisposition to exploit and kill members of other races and species. But do we want to celebrate such barbarous habits? Or overcome them? Part of the civilising processes is learning how to stop hurting, harming and killing each other. Transhumans and posthumans won't eat or enslave their fellow subjects of experience. We don't need to molest them either.
* * *
"Low testosterone"? A vegan diet can induce the opposite:
How do quasi-rational agents defend the indefensible?
"Rationalizing meat consumption: the 4Ns'"
("How people defend meat eating")
Pseudo-science that can find no place for sentience in its ontology is a false theory of the world.
("How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings")
Sceptics may recall historian Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens:
"Tens of billions of them [non-human animals] have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth."
Harari goes further:
"If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history."
Dominic, like the euthanasia program targeting severely handicapped humans last century, I think any analogous program directed at nonhumans of comparable sentience would be unwise. The Hippocratic Oath needs extending to veterinary medicine.
* * *
We have reasoned for hundreds of millions of years...
("Rats, reasoning, and rehabilitation: Neuroscientists uncovering how we reason")
* * *
If you say "sentient", a large minority of your audience will think you mean sapient.
If you say "conscious", a large minority of your audience will think you mean self-conscious.
And if you say (God forbid) "qualia", a large minority of your audience will think you mean something exotically metaphysical.
In short, a minefield...
Brian, I very much hope you reconsider your position. We both want a civilisation based on helping rather than harming sentient beings. Urging merely that nonhuman animals be treated less cruelly - "humanely" is a misnomer - will simply legitimise their exploitation, not promote a moral revolution. Most vegetarians and vegans aren't too "confrontational": we're not nearly confrontational enough. Shutting and outlawing factory farms and slaughterhouses is fundamental to the project of reducing the burden of suffering in the world. Any future compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world is sociologically inconceivable in the midst of the animal holocaust on which meat-eating western society is based. Please do think again!
["confrontational" should not mean rude. Courtesy, calmness and rational argument are usually more effective than personal abuse.]
One way to fight industrialised animal abuse now that doesn't legitimate the whole process is to support undercover video-filming of what routinely goes on in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. For one thing the animal exploitation industry can't do is publicise contrasting videos showing how nonhuman animals are butchered "humanely" - because the whole thrust of glossy meat commercials is to obscure the link between what's on supermarket shelves and the cruel story of how it got there.
The industry recognises the threat...
* * *
A precondition of any sociologically credible project of compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world is a moral revolution in human behaviour towards nonhuman animals. Systematic interventions to reduce free-living animal suffering are almost impossible to envisage while we are still systematically harming nonhuman animals in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Supporting undercover filming of what goes on in factory-farms and slaughterhouses makes a - admittedly small - dent in the burden of suffering now, while at the same time helping to promote the longer-term goal.
Factory-farming creates greater densities of suffering sentience than "natural" population densities of free-living nonhuman animals. Also, the lives of free-living nonhumans are only intermittently ghastly: nonhuman animals in the wild are rarely so desperate they resort to self-mutilation - as do chronically desperate factory-farmed animals unless prevented by castration/tail-docking/debeaking etc. But my point was about laying the socio-political preconditions for a pan-species welfare state of compassionate stewardship of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. How can this moral revolution in human behaviour come to pass if we endorse the systematic "humane" [i.e. less cruel] exploitation of other sentient beings?
When mass-produced in vitro meat products finally do hit the supermarket shelves, the transition could come surprisingly fast. It's not as though most consumers today revel in the thought of suffering and killing: Faced with two otherwise identical products, IMO most consumers will pick the ethical option - and feel good about themselves for doing so. More controversially - and this is speculation - the majority who have made the switch will feel morally indignant towards the holdouts; and support shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Of course predicting - as distinct from advocating - moral revolutions is never easy.
Perhaps one day pictures of "meat" may seem akin to pictures of child abuse - perhaps with in vitro meat as the counterpart of 3D rendering (or insentient juvenile robotlovers) to cater to mankind's residual baser appetites.
("Intimate relationships with machines will be the norm in 50 years, claims expert")
Do robolovers reinforce stereotypes and demean robots?
("Intelligent machines: Call for a ban on robots designed as sex toys")
* * *
Grotesquely cruel and inefficient: can our reward circuitry be activated by more civilised tools than Darwinian pair-bonding?
("A Psychologist's Guide to Online Dating. Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?")
* * *
Avian speed-dating and the recipe for love...
("Birds reveal the evolutionary importance of love")
Peter Singer on predation. Will sentient beings hurt, harm and kill each other indefinitely? Or will intelligent agents take our responsibilities seriously?
Biotech promises to make predation optional.
https://www.reprogramming-predators.com/ was written before the CRISPR revolution.
("Genetically Engineering Almost Anything")
'The Onion' sometimes puts it better than any philosopher:
Thanks Carolyn. What should be our long-term goal? Some sort of "Pleistocene re-wilding" - i.e. recreating Nature (in practice, our wildlife parks) as the living world existed before human impact? Or alternatively, a future of global veganism, i.e. a world where sentient beings don't hurt, harm and kill each other - or perish through hunger and neglect? No, I don't trust humans to get it right whatever we do. But the more carefully and morally seriously we weigh the issues the better. I've always found AR Zone a great forum for a thoughtful civilised debate.
Pitfalls? Carolyn, yes, I can only agree. I always used to assume that we'd tackle the thorny issue of free-living animal suffering and predation only after humans finally shut and outlawed factory-farms, slaughterhouses - and the other grosser forms of animal exploitation. However, one reason we need the debate now rather than later is the growth of "re-wilding" initiatives. Many people who support e.g. reintroducing wolves, captive big cat breeding programs and other interventions consider themselves animal lovers and even animal advocates. Unless we can work out some kind of consensus on our long-term goal, these well-intentioned efforts risk being self-defeating and even harmful. Re-engineering the Pleistocene could take as much time, effort and resources as a pan-species welfare state.
(I don't doubt wolves can be "gentle and loyal". But to survive in the wild they also eat their larger victims alive.
("Reintroduce ‘gentle & loyal’ wolves to Scotland, urges David Attenborough")
As you know, I argue that human and nonhuman animals flourish best when free living but not wild. Fine words - but what does this entail?
* * *
At Oscar [Horta]'s prompting, a tidied-up version of "A Welfare State for Elephants"
should be appearing in "Relations; Beyond Anthropocentrism"
Whether we'll ever truly have high tech Jainism or a pan-species welfare state is of course unknown. But the incredulous response of "That's impossible!" can't be sustained in the technical sense at least.
* * *
A welfare state for tortoises? Eventually, I trust...
Rodney, yes. What can be hard - if one recognises the vileness of Darwinian life - is to accept that the future belongs to life lovers. Any politically practical solutions to the cruelties of life will involve its perpetuation. Most of the folk in history who decided that the game wasn't worth the candle were not the people who passed on their genes...
The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions?
Phasing out the biology of suffering may have unlikely sponsors...
("The Department of Defense Wants to Use Science to Make Soldiers Literally Fearless")
* * *
("Intervention or Protest: Saving Nonhumans")
one day holding a workshop on, so to speak, "Predation: For or Against?" will seem as crazy as holding a workshop on, say, "Child Abuse: For or Against?"
Alas today predationists (I just made up a word) mostly regard their views as intellectually self-evident.
* * *
The meme is spreading - travestied, of course, as a plea for mass genocide:
("Should humans wipe out all carnivorous animals so the succeeding generations of herbivores can live in peace?")
Sentient beings shouldn't hurt, harm, and kill each other. This isn't an argument for mass genocide against cannibals or carnivores, but for dietary reform. Humans are prone to status quo bias. So let's do a thought-experiment. Imagine we stumble across an advanced civilisation that has abolished predation, disease, famine, and all the horrors of primitive Darwinian life. The descendants of archaic lifeforms flourish unmolested in their wildlife parks - free living but not "wild". Should we urge scrapping their regime of compassionate stewardship of the living world - and a return to asphyxiation, disembowelling and being eaten alive? Or is a happy biosphere best conserved intact?
Back here on Earth, the exponential growth of computer power entails that every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be accessible to surveillance and micro-management. In consequence, which life-forms and states of consciousness exist in tomorrow's wildlife parks will be up to us. Mass-produced in vitro meat, the CRISPR revolution in biotechnology, and fertility regulation via cross-species immunocontraception mean there is no need to re-enact the traditional Darwinian horror story indefinitely. On some fairly modest assumptions, fertility regulation is ethically preferable to Malthusian methods of population control in humans and nonhuman alike.
Critics might claim that a genetically tweaked vegetarian lion isn't "truly" a lion. But this is like saying non-Caucasians who lack the 1% to 3% Neanderthal DNA typical of Caucasians aren't "truly" human. Or vice versa. In short, beware naïve species essentialism.
For now this debate is fanciful. Before humans can start systematically helping sentient beings, we must stop systematically harming them. Thankfully, the in vitro meat revolution promises a world where factory-farms and slaughterhouses have been outlawed. Before seriously contemplating high-tech Jainism, let's shut the death factories. Thankfully, the era of industrialised animal abuse may soon be over:
("Artificial meat tipped to flood low-end market")
* * *
Should we aim to eradicate malaria? Were we wrong to eradicate smallpox? For sure, ending a source of immense suffering - and check on population sizes - can cause huge ecological disruption if not done intelligently. But this is an argument for cross-species fertility regulation, not Malthusian misery and moral inertia.
"A giant zoo"? Perhaps look around. Most contemporary humans are neither subsistence hunter-gatherers nor physically incarcerated, i.e. we are free-living rather than wild or captive. Good health, adequate shelter and decent nutrition for ourselves and our children are preconditions for an acceptable quality of life. In principle, free-living nonhuman animals too can flourish in tomorrow's nature reserves - well-fed, disease-free, and safe from being physically molested. This scenario isn't the same policy option as creating a "zoo".
"Complexity"? I presume the questioner wasn't envisaging a Five Year Plan, but instead asking about the long-term future of life on Earth over centuries and millennia to come. Power breeds complicity. Should we aim for some sort of "Pleistocene re-wilding"? Or a pan-species welfare state? Or something in-between?
What if humans weren't around? Any existential catastrophe that wiped out humans (or our transhuman successors) would presumably wipe out the global ecosystem too, or at least multicellular life. So the question is moot.
"Docile"? Or civilised? Once again, when considering the interests of human and nonhuman animals, the right to freedom from harm shouldn't be conflated with a freedom to harm others. Moreover, vegetarianism does not entail docility - as the lives of numerous free-living herbivores today attest.
* * *
Does the right to asphyxiate, disembowel or eat alive trump the right to be left in peace? This murderous-sounding ethic is hard to justify ethically - regardless of the age, race or species of the victims. To be sure, there is no guarantee that phasing out the horrors of predation will lead to a happy long-term outcome - any more than getting rid of cannibalistic headhunting leads inevitably to peace on Earth. But endorsement of extreme violence should not be the default option.
Dean let's guard against double standards. Modern humans want healthcare, good nutrition, and the safety of a well-policed society for ourselves and our loved ones - and an environment of parks and gardens, not malarial swamps. Extending the blessings of healthcare, good nutrition, and the safety of a well-policed society to free-living sentient beings from other species - and not so long ago to members of other races - sounds fanciful. Yet why should "we" enjoy a high quality of life while the existence of others is "nasty, brutish, and short". Anthropocentric bias can be as insidious as ethnocentric bias.
Is predation a comparative mercy? Care for the elderly in human society could certainly be improved. But the idea that granny might be better off if eaten alive or disembowelled by predators is as ethically problematic in humans as it is in nonhumans. Ethically speaking, we'd do better systematically to help the vulnerable rather than leave them to their fate.
* * *
Dirk perhaps "Reprogramming Predators" should have a companion piece "Reprogramming Prey". However, just as solving the problem of human predators by inducing their victims to enjoy their fate poses ethical and technical challenges, the same is true of nonhuman animals. In the long run, I hope the very notion of "predator" and "prey" can be engineered out of existence.
* * *
Chaitali, you remark "Offering assistance means that the person can legally give consent to contraception measures. An animal cannot give consent. Hence, your comparison is flawed." Control of both family and overall population sizes is feasible in human and nonhuman animals; but only mature humans are capable of giving informed consent. Perhaps compare vaccinations. Neither small-children nor nonhuman animals can give informed consent to be vaccinated; but vaccinations against several extremely unpleasant diseases are (or should be) performed in the interests of both the vaccinee and the wider community.
Potential ethical dilemmas? Pitfalls? Yes, of course, lots. Yet on some quite modest assumptions, it's not in your interests to contract a nasty debilitating disease, nor to lose half your offspring to hunger, malnutrition of or predators - regardless or race or species. Hence the case for compassionate stewardship.
* * *
Life is extremely diverse. But complications aside, no sentient being wants to be harmed. So no anthropocentrism - or anthropomorphism - is involved here: quite the opposite.
Ex-predators? Like ex-cannibals, they can flourish - just not by harming others.
"Diminished vitality"? On the contrary. Hunger, malnutrition, disease, deficiency disorders and parasites sap the vitality of many organisms in a state of Nature. Perhaps compare the psychological as well as physical effects of famine in 20th century sub-Saharan Africa. These adverse effects of deprivation can be transgenerational.
By contrast, good nutrition and ecologically sustainable population sizes thanks to cross-species fertility regulation can hugely enhance vitality.
Yes, pitfalls abound. But let's not assume a civilisation based on compassionate stewardship of the living world would be stupid.
* * *
Sean, we are entitled to be sentientists and phylum chauvinists. Plants, fungi, and the great majority of living organisms on the planet are not subjects of experience. They don't inherently deserve moral consideration.
Nonsense mutations of the SCN9A gene abolish the capacity to experience phenomenal pain. Plants don't have an SCN9A gene - or anything like it. In the absence of any capacity for rapid self-propelled motion, no selection pressure can exist to create an energetically expensive nervous system - or the unitary subject of experience supported by the vertebrate CNS. The nerve ganglia of insects, for example, may undergo micro-pains; but (unless we embrace animism) there is no unitary subject of insect experience. Perhaps compare how the head segment of some locusts can carry on feeding while the tail segment is devoured. Granted, we can't discount the possibility that individual cells - including non-neuronal cellulose cell-wall-encased plant cells - support discrete rudimentary micro-experiences. Yet compared to the horrors of vertebrate suffering, such hypothetical cellular micro-experience is presumably (at worse) ethically trivial.
("Plants Use Neurotransmitter To Signal Stress")
What really would shock me is if plants (or other sessile organisms) manufactured opiates - or their functional equivalent - for anything resembling pain relief. Of course, members of the poppy family do manufacture opiates; but presumably they do so for the adaptive purpose of "poisoning" anything that might otherwise eat them. My main worry about such stories is they prompt exultant cries of "Look, plants feel pain too!" from meat eaters.
* * *
How many sentient beings want to be asphyxiated, disembowelled or eaten alive? The “complications aside” caveat was there for a reason. But by its very nature, predation involves extreme unprovoked violence.
Ex-predators? A lion who eats in vitro meat or whose metabolism and behavioural phenotype is tweaked to be harmless can flourish no less than a famished lion - who also typically loses several of her cubs.
Human cannibalism? Perhaps consider the genetic evidence of natural selection at work on genetic loci suggesting widespread prion diseases in our evolutionary history. However, this controversial topic would take us far afield.
Timescales? Genetic engineering and ecosystem management are inherently wide-raging and long-term. We're talking about the long-term future of nonhuman life, not just the fate of existing sentience.
The “vitality” of an ecosystem? Mastery of our genetic source code via the revolution in biotech promises unparalleled ecological control. Whether we use such power wisely is another question. If you don't believe that traditional misery-ridden ecosystems are horribly flawed, then you won't see a need for compassionate stewardship.
Variety? The CRISPR revolution in biotech promises far greater genetic, psychological and behavioural diversity that was feasible under a regimen of natural selection.
Infallibility? Responsible policy-making is about risk-reward ratios and cost-benefit analyses, not pretensions to omniscience. If we want a living world of happy and healthy sentience, we now have the tools for the job.
* * *
Malthusians used to believe that the immiseration of humans was inevitable. The exponential growth of human populations would outrun the (at best) linear growth in food supplies. "It must be so". Malthusians did not foresee family planning or the demographic transition.
Free-living nonhuman animals can't control their own fertility like contemporary humans. In consequence, the cruel Darwinian processes of famine and predation still determine species population sizes. "It must be so" say bioconservatives. However, cross-species fertility regulation via immunocontraception now offers an alternative: nonhuman animals in tomorrow's Nature reserves can be free-living rather than wild or zoo-bound.
Resources? Our successors aren't going to run out of the tools of fertility-regulation any more than they'll exhaust computer power, nanobots or gene-editing software. In future, whether sentient beings flourish or undergo misery and malaise will be an (un)ethical decision by intelligent agents.
* * *
Like Dick Cheney's description of the torture of waterboarding as a "dunk in the water", the sense of uncontrollable panic induced by being suffocated should not be trivialized: it is extraordinarily unpleasant.
You speak of "gambling the ecosystem". In the absence of fertility-regulation underwritten by compassionate stewardship, population explosions followed by starvation would resume as now. This is what the "balance of Nature" means - not tranquil equilibrium. Darwinian existence would return.
"Destroy nature"? No - not unless you count family planning and abolishing famine in sub-Saharan Africa as "destroying" the ecosystem.
Who is taking about "destroying" a species? Members of different human ethnic groups may have different alleles/ allelic combinations; but they can still interbreed. The same can be true of free-living nonhumans of different species in tomorrow's wildlife parks.
"Being a predator is what they are. You seek to deny them that. It's a violation of their will". Yes, this is true of some humans who prey on small children. Human predators didn't choose to be that way; there's no metaphysical sense in blaming them for their nature. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't protect small children - thereby "violating the will" of those who would harm them. Nor need it mean in future we aren't duty-bound to protect beings of comparable sentience and sapience.
"Totalitarianism"? The freedom to live one's life without being physically molested is about as basic to liberty as it gets.
Can we bioengineer a living world full of love?
("Parenting in the animal world: Turning off the infanticide instinct")
* * *
"Don't use the term 'human predators'"
But whether to aim for a world without human and nonhuman predators is precisely what's at issue. You assert that we should protect the interests of the victim if s/he human, and instead protect the interests the predator if the victim is nonhuman. It's precisely this inversion of values that advocates of compassionate stewardship are challenging - though in practice, (ex-)predators can benefit from compassionate biology as much as ex-victims. On a practical level, it's hard to imagine humans could systematically help free-living nonhuman animals while we systematically harm their domesticated counterparts in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. But the in vitro meat revolution will most likely bring a moral revolution in its wake. The cruelties of Nature needn't persist indefinitely.
* * *
Jin, agreed, it's potentially hackable. So of course is the IT infrastructure on which the lives of free-living humans now depends. Digital security is a huge challenge. However, I presume the questioner wasn't anticipating an imminent Five Year Plan (or even an imminent Fifty Year Plan) but instead posing a question about the long-term future of life on the planet. From an ethical point of view, should humans promote and preserve a living world where sentient beings are programmed to hurt, harm and kill each other? Or use biotech and IT to create some sort of pan-species welfare state where all sentient beings flourish in peace?
* * *
Wolf, apologies for the lack of clarity about the "sociological credibility". Nature has “designed” many organisms to harm others. So one technical solution to such savagery might be to allow species of obligate predator and parasite to go extinct, allowing the inoffensive to flourish in peace. But one sure-fire way to unite (almost) everyone against you is to propose the “loss” of iconic predators (above a certain size at least. Most people seem relaxed about the extinction of Plasmodium-transmitting species of Anopheles mosquito.)
Of course, judgements of likely socio-political credibility 20 or 50 years from now are speculative - sometimes little better than guesswork. Most people today are still incredulous at any form of compassionate intervention to help free living nonhumans, let alone organised stewardship. Perhaps all we can realistically do for now is set out different policy options and encourage serious ethical debate. By contrast, the case for shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses is much simpler in every sense.
* * *
Britain is being haunted by the spectre of killer seagulls, but perhaps we need to discuss the wider picture:
("David Cameron wants a 'big conversation' about 'murderous' seagulls killing pets and attacking people")
Christian, we tend to respect strong and dominant predators. Conversely, we are prone to feel contempt for the weak. ("Are you a man or a mouse?") But Darwinian ethics, like Darwinian life, deserves to go into the dustbin of history. We can do better.
* * *
Jin, but natural selection has done a terrible job. As Richard Dawkins observes, "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation." Intelligent agents can potentially do better. Not least, mastery of our genetic source code promises a civilised future where intelligent agents pre-select and customise alleles and allelic combinations in anticipation of their likely behavioural and psychological effects on the organism. By contrast, natural selection is "blind". Mutations are effectively random [with respect to the direction of evolution]. Crossing gaps in the fitness landscape is prohibited by natural selection. By contrast, intelligent agency can "leap across" such fitness gaps. So far greater genetic diversity is feasible in a post-CRISPR living world than under the old Darwinian regime.
Prototypes and pilot studies? Sure, they will be essential. But why assume a "sad life for the prototypes"? Lifelong good nutrition, decent healthcare and fertility regulation can allow free-living human and nonhuman animals alike to flourish. Darwinian ecosystems contain obscene amounts of suffering. Post-Darwinian ecosystems can be happy. Either way, it's an ethical choice.
* * *
Direct action now? Sometimes, small actions can make the world a better place. But in the case of free-living animals, I worry that a piecemeal approach may not have any benefit at all. Often the outcome will just be more suffering. Thus rescue some mice or herbivores large and small and the result will be a larger breeding population, followed by more starvation and an increase in predator numbers - and thus more fear, death and suffering.
The only way I know to make a real difference to the burden of suffering will be to campaign for a global ethical-ideological shift away from traditional conservation biology to compassionate biology - with all that such responsible stewardship of the rest of the living world entails. In other words, cross-species fertility regulation, GPS tracking, phasing out carnivory, the lot, though presumably with initial pilot studies in individual wildlife parks. This conception of future Nature reserves will presumably involve many decades (centuries?) of ridicule and hostility as well as moral apathy - though it's great that big names like Peter Singer are gingerly raising issues such as the long-term future of predation.
Is this analysis too pessimistic?
When can ad hoc interventions make a difference?
Whether rescuing mice or wildlife rehabilitation centres, I'd be the last person to discourage hands-on animal activism.
Books and genomes alike should be edited:
("The researchers behind 'the biggest biotech discovery of the century' found it by accident")
Andres' work (http://www.reddit.com/r/Drugs/comments/345e6p/this_guy_is_trying_to_figure_out_how_to_quantify/
"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him". Contra Wittgenstein, I think if a lion could speak, we'd understand her or him quite well: we share the same core emotions. Obviously, some aspects of a lion's experience would be foreign to us: for instance, what it's like to fancy another lion. But an analogous lack of appreciation of many other people's sexual turn-ons is common too.
One way of exploring the role of status quo bias is to imagine if some phenomenon didn't exist and asking how hard we'd work to introduce it. Thus if there were no veterinarians, for example, then countless pet owners (and others) would support their introduction. How about obligate predators? In a world where sentient beings flourished unmolested, the idea of deliberately genetically engineering organisms designed to hurt, harm and kill other sentient beings would seem not just fanciful but obscene. In my view, we should take this lesson to heart.
* * * N
CRISPR and gene drives could be used to claw our way out of the Darwinian abyss. But what are the odds of our navigating the transition to a happy biosphere?
("The Genesis Engine")
Should the development of safe and sustainable mood-enrichers be promoted or discouraged?
("Prisoners taking legal highs to be kept in jail longer")
* * *
Good news, but for now a few month's in the Maldives is cheaper:
("Scientists have created artificial sunlight that’s real enough to trick your brain")
* * *
Cannabis-induced psychosis is not a mere artefact of publication bias. Can medical science design safe, sustainable euphoriants instead?
('Skunk-like cannabis' increases risk of psychosis, study suggests")
The austere pages of Nature magazine are getting sexier:
("Marijuana flips appetite switch in brain. Sudden attacks of 'the munchies' are triggered by a change in the hormone released by neurons.")
In common with most nonhuman animals, I don't like the effects of cannabis either; derealisation, depersonalisation, intense introspection. But then I have a pleasure-resistant brain. If the drug made me high, I suspect I'd smoke it all day.
* * *
Your brain and food:
("Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings")
Some folk combine junk food or a quasi-Palaeolithic diet with nootropics. However...
("Healthful eating is smart way to sustain brain power, study finds")
Perhaps the one area where dietary ethics and self-interest don't coincide is fish-eating. However, vegan sources of EFAs lacking the trace dioxin, mercury and PCBs of "natural" fish sources are available from your local health-food store.
* * *
As our minds are currently designed, mesolimbic dopaminergic “wanting” shows no physiological tolerance (cf. wireheading), whereas mu opioidergc “liking” shows a lot of physiological tolerance. This contrast isn't to deny we'd be blissfully happy all day if our twin hedonic hotspots were optimally stimulated. But unlike wireheading, one can't simply keep on taking the same dose of a mu agonist opioid each day and expect to sustain the initial euphoric effect.
http://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Brain-Series-Affective-Science/dp/0195331028 (Pleasures of the Brain")
Is aging is a treatable disorder?
("Live for ever: Scientists say they’ll soon extend life ‘well beyond 120’")
("Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death")
A switch best left unflipped:
Some of the critical comments would be justified if coercive rejuvenation therapy were proposed. But should anyone be forced to grow old and die when medical science makes aging technically optional? Condemning innocent life-lovers to such a fate would seem cruel and immoral. Further, such a draconian policy could be enforced only by a totalitarian state.
* * *
If humans can live 200 years, we can live indefinitely:
("Discovery of Bowhead whale genes offer hope of extending human life. Genome for the world's longest-living mammal may hold key to 200-year lifespans")
("Genes that make you clever also help you live longer")
Negative utilitarianism probably knocks at least two decades off one's life-expectancy - though I wouldn't mind being brainwashed out of it by extravagant amounts of pleasure.
* * *
("Reducing Myc gene activity extends healthy lifespan in mice")
Many fountains, not enough youth. But still interesting:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150408124628.htm ("Fountain of youth uncovered in mammary glands of mice, by breast cancer researchers")
* * *
Prepare for a global surge in bone-crushing handshakes:
("Getting a grip")
* * *
"Hell is other people" (Sartre). But is the alternative worse?
("Prescription for living longer: Spend less time alone")
The sinister story of Darwinian life...
("The Science of spite")
Why do vegetarians tend to live longer than meat-eaters?
("A handful of nuts can save your life, says new study")
* * *
Transhumanism is going mainstream:
("Google Ventures and the Search for Immortality")
* * *
Let's keep violence off the menu:
"Study finds that eating whole grains can help you live longer")
Moral argument or an appeal to self-interest? What's the most effective way to get factory-farms and slaughterhouses shut? See too:
* * *
Just as inorganic robots can be repaired indefinitely, there doesn't seem any fundamental law of Nature that prohibits organic robots from being maintained indefinitely too, at least before the Heat Death of the universe. But the Ship of Theseus springs to mind...
* * *
Randall, in science, it doesn't matter whether you're a double Nobel laureate or serve on the checkout counter at Walmart. If you present a compelling argument why organic but not silicon (etc) robots can't be maintained indefinitely, that's great - regardless of your academic credentials.
For what it's worth, I'm sceptical of the notion of enduring personal identity from day-to-day, let alone centuries or millennia. But such scepticism about enduring metaphysical egos is very different from the claim that organic robots are forever destined to senesce and die because their neurons are irreplaceable. We already know this isn't the case from studies of adult neurogenesis.
* * *
("This 26 Year Old Man And His Rare Condition May Be The Key To Immortality")
("This 26 Year Old Man And His Rare Condition May Be The Key To Immortality")
* * *
Do old minds need young blood?
("Scientists uncover surprising new tools to rejuvenate the brain")
* * *
Randall, what do you believe are the upper bounds of complexity of an organism that could be engineered to have an indefinite lifespan? For example, if any of the 302 neurons of C. elegans (cf. http://www.i-programmer.info/news/105-artificial-intelligence/7985-a-worms-mind-in-a-lego-body.html) wears out, the neurons could be replaced, but I gather you believe such a challenge will always be computationally intractable for Homo sapiens (??).
Randall, most researchers working in the field of anti-aging medicine don't call themselves "transhumanists". But they do seek to extend healthspan as long as possible. No one dies of old age, always of a specific condition. You would support (I trust!) the treatment and prevention of, say, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's and the different cancers. What then? Are you opposed to, say, neural stem cell therapies? What should be the maximum legal lifespan? How should such a cap be enforced?
Should we create "Methuselah humans"?
("Prolonging lifespan: Researchers create 'Methuselah fly' by selecting best cells")
If computational platonism is true, presumably we each have an infinite number of digital zombie counterparts. By contrast, finitists (like me), who don't believe that phenomenal binding is classical, will have to settle for digitization for partial restoration and backup purposes.
Randall, you're attacking a straw man. The future feasibility of indefinite lifespans for organic robots does not depend on conserving a precise molecular duplicate of your current mind-brain state. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-cloning_theorem) Recall that throughout life there is a huge turnover of our molecular constituents daily, together with growth and pruning of synaptic connections - and also modest neurogenesis.
Eternal life? On any naturalistic rather theistic view, life must be infinitesimally short, not eternal, because we can't cheat the heat death of the universe. But no law of Nature forbids phasing out involuntary suffering or senescence in our forward light-cone.
* * *
"Cryonics is an experiment. So far the control group isn't doing very well."
Neither death nor taxes are inevitable, though taxes may have a long future.
Dead? Or in a "deep meditative trance"?
("Mongolian scientists study 200-year-old mummified monk who is 'still alive’")
* * *
Stefan F., indefinite lifespans are not the same as infinite lifespans. That's why I alluded to the Heat Death of the universe.
Randall, just as we could (if anyone wanted to) keep, say, an Atari 400 functioning indefinitely, presumably post-human superintelligence could do the same for simple-minded organic robots like us. Whether such conservation is ethically desirable is another question. I'm personally opposed to forced terminations.
* * *
Randall, no one was ever harmed by not existing. Accusing someone of behaving selfishly towards non-existing beings is like saying they are harming the tooth-fairy. Also, if as you claim, lifespans of beyond 150 years are forbidden by the second law, then transhumanists would at worst be like designers of perpetual motion machines, i.e. harmless cranks. Either way, does talk of our "selfishness on top of selfishness on top of yet more selfishness" do justice to your natural generosity of spirit?
* * *
Does the track record of futurists beat astrologers?
"To desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake” (Schopenhauer)
But not if organic robots upgrade their reward circuitry too.
("How Silicon Valley is trying to cure ageing")
We recognise progeria as a disorder. The fact its signs and symptoms strike most of us today somewhat later does not make them healthy.
Let's hope Syndrome X can provide more clues:
* * *
Misao Okawa: 117 years Not Out. When will Jeanne Calment's record 122 years, 164 days be surpassed?
("World's oldest person celebrates 117th birthday in Japan")
Randall, defeating the biology of aging isn't like trying to cheat the no-cloning theorem in quantum mechanics, let alone subverting Gödel's incompleteness theorems. We not trying to preserve a perfect copy of anyone: the half-life of a typical protein in the brain is around 12 days, and our neuronal weights and connections ceaselessly change. None of this entails a biology of irreparable aging. Not least, high-resolution scanning and backup mind-files should be feasible later this century and beyond - though my idiosyncratic views on the nonclassical nature of phenomenal binding mean I doubt a classical digital computer will ever be a unitary subject of experience.
* * *
Senolytic drugs - the revolution has begun:
("New class of drugs dramatically increases healthy lifespan, mouse study suggests")
Dasatinib and quercetin.
("Senescent cells: a novel therapeutic target for aging and age-related disease")
Dylan, much of my early consciousness was stained by angst, introspection and melancholy. The melancholy and hypercholinergic frenzy have gone, together with the old DP. My regimen causes a degree of inner tension (and propensity to play Modern Combat and Hitman Sniper - in HS, killing civilian witnesses is discouraged but not penalised, and if you don't, they blab to guards:
http://brainblogger.com/2015/07/15/the-most-popular-psychiatric-drugs-alter-decisions-to-cause-harm/ Whether this matters in practice is debatable:
But I ought to be getting ready for Melbourne EA:
and working on the book.
What next? My JDTIC experiment didn't work out as hoped; kappa opioid antagonists "ought" to improve hedonic tone without the side-effects of mu agonist opioids, but my brain is pleasure-resistant. Anticholinergics brighten my mood; but they are also the archetypal "dumb drugs".
The only time I've experienced a passable imitation of mental health was on: https://www.mdma.net But the problem of how safely and sustainably to sustain MDMA-like consciousness (a “triple whammy” of enhanced oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin function?) has defeated me. We need a super-Shulgin.
I hesitated before posting an answer at all. It's not as through my regimen has turned an emotional train-wreck into a psychological superman. I'm still looking for the elusive combo that makes me wake up in the morning ready to take on the world and win...
* * *
A sensible note of caution:
* * *
Metformin goes on trial as an anti-aging drug:
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown:
("Why The Oldest Person In The World Keeps Dying")
Real men don't live long?
("Why are 95% of people who live to 110 women? You're as old as your stem cells")
* * *
Concepta Emancipación raises an ethically challenging point. Should one cite research that may have involved unethical procedures - whether human or nonhuman? Much of our knowledge of the extremes of human endurance comes from e.g. experiments performed by the Nazi doctors or Unit 731. Like granting the admissibility in court of evidence obtained under duress, the risk of citation is we encourage more abuse. That said, we do need (ethically conducted) biomedical research. It's the only way that humans and mice alike can flourish with indefinite health spans - and of course fertility regulation.
* * *
("How come no one was ever born with a mutation that prevented him from aging?")
Unfortunately, "Syndrome X" (cf. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140520-the-girls-who-never-age Ageing: The girls who never grow older) strikes very early in life. Yet the CRISPR revolution of genome editing promises a genetically engineered future of eternal youth.
Alas realistic timescales are still unclear:
Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime: Aubrey de Grey, Michael Rae: 9780312367077: Amazon.com: Books
No fundamental law of nature dictates that silicon robots must grow old and perish. Without exception, their components are replaceable, repairable and improvable indefinitely. The same presumably holds for organic robots like us - eventually. But when? Despite e.g. the exponential growth of computer power and the explosive growth of CRISPR genome-editing technologies, I suspect Aubrey de Grey is too optimistic about timescales by several decades - perhaps more.
Syndrome X is fascinating: I’d love to know further details. Alas like you I am (extremely) sceptical we will ever be able to engineer some sort of single genetic switch that turns off aging in early adulthood.
Digital immortality? Some transhumanists imagine that we will be able to scan, digitise and "upload" ourselves to another medium. I'm personally sceptical about the possibility of software-based phenomenal minds. However, my reasons for doubting that classical digital computers can ever solve the phenomenal binding problem are idiosyncratic. (cf. What did really happen with Schrödinger's cat?)
* * * In principle, neither aging nor taxes are biologically inevitable...
Happy long-lived worms on mianserin:
[on male primate dominance behaviour]
How can transhumanism overcome male primate dominance behaviour?
("Science explains why hipsters grow beards. Men might be growing beards to appear more attractive to women and more dominant to other men, a study on monkeys suggests ")
Male primate dominance behaviour is still (IMO) our greatest underlying source of global catastrophic risk - and, less obviously, the evolutionary origin of world-wide scourge of depression. Non-social animals don't get depressed.
The abolition of men? The language of enhancement generally plays better with an audience than nihilistic phraseology. But in essence, yes.
If physicalism is true, then the world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. No “element of reality” is missing from the equations of (tomorrow's) physics – either relativistic quantum field theory or its currently speculative successor, M-theory. This formal claim is typically conjoined with an ontological assumption, namely that the mysterious “fire” in the equations – the intrinsic nature of the physical – is non-experiential. If this claim is true, then physicalism is a close cousin of classical materialism. If this claim is false, i.e. if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then physicalism becomes a scientifically literate variant of monistic idealism. The best known proponent of non-materialistic physicalism today is Galen Strawson. (cf. "Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?" by Galen Strawson et al. (2006))
Traditional “materialist” physicalists face the seemingly impossible Hard Problem of Consciousness. By contrast, Strawsonian physicalists must confront what David Chalmers calls the problem of microphysical simplicity and the problem of structural mismatch (the phenomenal binding/combination problem)
All varieties of physicalism are typically associated with – but should be distinguished from – reductionism. According to reductive physicalism, life can be reduced to molecular biology, molecular biology to quantum chemistry, and quantum chemistry to the most fundamental entities recognised by physics. The problem with reductionism is that physicists increasingly recognise that the superposition principle is universal. The decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains the illusion of wavefunction collapse. If indeed the unitary dynamics doesn't ever break down, and if physicalism is correct, then wavefunction monism is true, and reductionism is false. All that exists is a single gigantic cosmic superposition exhaustively described by the universal wavefunction. Both materialist and non-materialist physicalists may be wavefunction monists. (cf. Alyssa May and David Albert: "The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics" Oxford University Press, 2013 "
What's my view? Well, I take David Chalmers' challenge to physicalism seriously. If any element of our rich, bound phenomenal consciousness is unrepresented in the formalism of physics, then physicalism is false. Classical neuroscience suggests that organic minds are nothing but networks of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound, effectively classical neurons. If so, then we'd be nothing but patterns of classical Jamesian “mind-dust”. The existence of local and global phenomenal binding poses a huge challenge to physicalism and the ontological unity of science. Thankfully, experiment rather than armchair philosophising should decide the issue:
* * *
Any theory of quantum mind (beyond Deepak Chopra-style poetry) yield testable, experimentally falsifiable consequences - as well as a more easily confirmed torrent of philosophical speculation from scientists and non-scientists alike. This is true of both Penrose-style "dynamical collapse" conjectures (Orch-OR) and "no collapse" models. However, a quick Google search on "neuronal superpositions" yielded a less-than-stellar 182 results: decoherence is the CNS is intuitively insanely fast:
Progress in understanding conscious mind may come via some stunning breakthrough - or instead via definitively falsifying every (non-vacuous) candidate via experiment.
* * *
I am genuinely surprised that Penrose and Hameroff want to hitch their star to Deepak Chopra. Unlike Chopra’s New Agery, the prediction that the superposition principle breaks down for mesoscopic systems above a certain threshold is potentially experimentally falsifiable – albeit (I guess!) false.
David, perhaps replace “vacuous” by “topic-neutral”? Naively, the same deterministic equation can describe the time–evolution of (quantum superpositions of) (1) fields of insentience, (2) fields of sentience or (3) fields of something that is sometimes sentient and sometimes insentient.
(1) is the Dennettian zombie world that we “ought” to be living in if our pre-reflective understanding of the nature of the physical were correct.
(2) is a physicalistic idealist world. David Chalmers, Phil Goff and others claim that we can know this isn’t our world because we aren’t micro-experiential zombies.
(3) is the hybrid world of robust common-sense. Consciousness “switches on “, “emerges”, “arises” (etc) in the womb. Just as life proved derivable from abiotic processes, likewise consciousness will one day be derivable from non-consciousness.
Thanks Andres. Any adequate scientific theory of consciousness should offer novel, precise and empirically falsifiable predictions .The outcome of the proposed experimental test should - by antecedent agreement – satisfy proponents and critics alike. The reason for believing our minds have been quantum computers for the past 540 million-odd years lies – IMO - under our virtual noses. However, it’s a “philosophical” argument. As you've discovered, many folk are serenely untroubled by the phenomenal binding problem. The only way I can think of independently to settle the issue involves something like the in vitro “Schrodinger’s neurons” interferometry experiment outlined. Of the three possible experimental outcomes, i.e. (1) no non-classical interference effects, (2) a non-classical interference signature that’s mere “noise”; (3) a perfect structural match, I tentatively favour the most absurd, namely (3). But trading rival intuitions of plausibility is easy...
John, for what it's worth, I combine the boringly conventional (i.e. the non-classical interference signature revealed by double-slit experiments is compelling evidence that superpositions are real) with the stunningly unorthodox (i.e. our phenomenally bound minds and the pseudo-classical world-simulations they run are quantum-coherent superpositions). By contrast, there are attempts to salvage something resembling classical physics, e.g. the de Broglie–Bohm pilot-wave theory, neo-Copenhagenist "Quantum Bayesianism" and so forth. IMO they don't work; but such disagreements just illustrate why experiment is so critical. Does the unitary Schrödinger dynamics ever break down? If it doesn't, can selection pressure really recruit macroscopic quantum coherent processes in the face of anything as powerful, insanely rapid and seemingly uncontrollable as thermally-induced decoherence? If we want to avoid Chalmersian dualism, we don’t have a lot of options: phenomenal binding of distributed neural feature-processors into perceptual objects is classically impossible.
On a lighter note, who says "the robin flies with quantum coherence"?
(a) the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator
b) Physical Review Letters
I wonder how many people would guess the latter?
Either way, they’d be correct.
[on people who think they are made of glass]
People who think they are made of cheesy wet neural porridge face one or two puzzling anomalies in the empirical evidence too:
("The people who think they are made of glass")
Perhaps each of us deserves to be remembered by an eponymous syndrome
[on the Stamp Collector]
Thanks Duncan. what does Stampy make of poet Emily Dickinson I wonder...
"THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside."
I'm tempted to add to the story...psychonaut philosophers offer to give Stampy their unique British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp if Stampy solves the Hard Problem of Consciousness...but that might take us further afield.
Unlike poor old Stampy, organic minds do have direct access to the world-simulations they instantiate. Your mind consists of homuncular Duncan – typically cross-modally matched homunculi unless you're doing high-dose ketamine – and what might be called transcendental Duncan that includes the heavens above and the ground below. How such local and global binding is possible takes us back to familiar themes...
But although we may have semi-transparent access to the contents of our minds, do we enjoy any better semantic access to the external world than a digital zombie like Stampy?
It's extraordinarily hard to give a naturalistic account of “broad” content. The reality of broad content seems to involve a magical theory of reference. (Many years ago I illustrated what I believe to be the human predicament in the fable:
Indeed, it seems possible to describe worlds where there isn't really any “broad” content or reference at all, just their functional equivalent, whether for humans or Stampy. But if one applies this perspective to oneself, then semantic solipsism looms - and it's hard to avoid such semantic solipsism collapsing into an uninteresting solipsism...
* * *
Duncan, yes, we care about many things other than pleasure and the avoidance of pain. I think the key question is why we care about them - and by why, I mean not the reasons we avow, but the true causal explanation.
In the case of organic minds, opioidergic projections to the neocortex are vital - "painting on" hedonic tone so it often becomes integral to our representations themselves. I care most about Justice, Truth and the American Way of Life, not pleasure.
If I'm a mother faced with a terrible dilemma - either my life or the life of my offspring - then for evolutionary reasons, I may choose to sacrifice my own life. I don't have direct, non-inferential access to the mind-independent world. But I do imagine a world without me versus a world without my offspring - and the latter seems intrinsically worse. Here again we have the extraordinary genetic adaptiveness of phenomenal binding in naturally evolved biological organisms like us that can't be programmed like digital computers. Thus snakes seem intrinsically scary, faeces seem intrinsically disgusting, nubile girls intrinsically sexy, my kids intrinsically important - so intrinsically important that their survival takes precedence over the life of their aging caregiver.
Less melodramatically, I may avoid the offer of heroin because I know that use of mu opioids will subvert my core values [The kids come first.]
And Stampy? Well, Stampy may decline my tempting offer of the fantastically British Guiana One-Cent Magenta stamp because his seed AI programmers were smart. They've ensured that their robot steers clear of investigating the phenomenology of the pleasure-pain axis. Such knowledge is too dangerous – just as knowledge of what it's like to mainline heroin is too dangerous for me / my raison d'etre. “Don't try heroin, it's too good". Or as Lenny Bruce put it, “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”
* * *
Is it wrong to keep pets?
("Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak says humans will be robots' pets")
* * *
The War On Drugs: time to declare victory and take the troops home?
("Home-brew heroin: soon anyone will be able to make illegal drugs")
Can such a threat to the livelihood of drug dealers be averted:
("Drugs: Regulate 'home-brew' opiates")
* * *
Dirk, yes, this view needs to be expressed with great care, but I suspect that folk who jack up heroin do gain a brief and tantalising insight into what posthuman life will be like - more so than folk who just write wordy screeds on paradise engineering or posthuman superintelligence. I still think that life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss is a more sociologically credible future scenario than lifelong nirvana. Yet in an important sense, perhaps Lenny Bruce knew something that the rest of us don't. As it is, the nearest I come to a "peak experience" these days is the first cup of coffee in the morning - possibly not unrelated to:
http://rt.com/news/226091-coffee-protein-morphine-brazil/ - though the psychostimulant action certainly helps.
* * *
Truth? Duncan, IMO the instrumental value of truth is so ethically important that (it may well be true to say that) it's best treated as absolutely valuable in its own right. But "best treated as" and "really" are distinct notions. Complications: when watching a movie, reading a novel, playing a game, when isn't perpetually thinking this-isn't-really-true. Does this matter? And ultimately, are there any semantic facts, or is "truth" an instrumentally valuable fiction that captures aspects of the natural world that would otherwise be wholly inconceivable? No, the heart doesn't "really" have a function; and one state of the world isn't "really" about another state of the world. But in both cases, reliance on the fiction in question is instrumentally valuable. In the case of truth, articulating the naturalistic position there are no real semantic facts is vulnerable to the charge of being self-stultifying - back to pitfalls of "semantic solipsism" I alluded to above. Quine's position there are no semantic facts - though disturbing - is less disturbing if one presupposes a direct realist conception of perception in which at least we enjoy shared access to a public world. This option isn't open to the world-simulationist - though of course the world-simulationist still wants to posit the analogue of a shared public realm.
[on physical pain]
Can the dorsal posterior insula go the way of the dodo?
("'Ouch zone' in the brain identified")
* * *
Can we engineer a painless biosphere?:
("Genetically modified mice reveal the secret to a painless life
Researchers have discovered the pharmaceutical recipe for painlessness")
http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/151204/ncomms9967/full/ncomms9967.htm("Endogenous opioids contribute to insensitivity to pain in humans and mice lacking sodium channel Nav1.7")
All-in for humanity?
Killer robots exterminate billions of sentient beings; but will AI ever be smart enough to build friendly biological intelligence?
("The Real Threat Posed by Powerful Computers")
1) We're going to be superseded by digital zombies.
2) Non-biological machines are going to “wake up”.
Zombies (1) don't have general intelligence, as distinct from narrow intelligence. They can't theorise about, or explore, the myriad varieties of consciousness. At most, they are idiots savants.
So (2) are digital zombies going to become conscious? When? Why? How? On theoretical grounds, I'm sceptical that classical digital computers will ever be sentient. But if anyone has a proposed mechanism, I'd love to hear it.
Perhaps a partial fusion of biological and nonbiological machine intelligence will unfold later this century and beyond. But I don't envisage a zombie putsch. "Terminators" exploit and kill billions of sentient beings each year. Building sentience-friendly biological intelligence may prove harder than defeating a zombie rebellion.
Will the hostiles in "Modern Combat 10" persuade some player to port them to the meat world and defeat us?
I hope not!
* * *
Would any benevolent superintelligence create Homo sapiens we didn't exist? Should rationalists promote status quo bias? (cf. MIRI / FHI's raison d'être) Should classical utilitarians forswear the implications of their own principles and preserve Darwinian life? In practice, I suspect post-human superintelligence will be our AI-augmented biological descendants, and the end of suffering is best achieved by high-tech Jainism rather than promoting Armageddon. But perhaps I'm mistaken.
Simon, maximising well-being and maximising human happiness are intuitively similar. But the former might be inconsistent with mankind's continuing existence. If researchers who believe that we're poised for a biointelligence explosion (and not just a non-biological AI explosion) are mistaken, then our robot overlords might opt to decommission us. However, I've never yet come across a sociologically plausible account of a zombie coup...
Full-spectrum "psychedelic" superintelligence or digital zombies? Who or what will inherit the Earth?
("A Field Guide to Psychedelics")
* * *
Will posthuman superintelligence be sociopathic or psychopathic?
[Pablo Stafforini writes]
You say that "there are lots of problems for which being a subject of experience would seem essential", yet the only example you give is "investigating the nature, varieties and binding of familiar and alien states of consciousness." Can you be more specific, and name several different domains of expertise where digital computers will, in your opinion, never outperform humans?
Pablo, good question. We can think of a long and lengthening list of domains where the performance of digital computers surpasses humans. Is consciousness just a corner case? I guess the answer partly depends on how we carve out the notion of different cognitive domains. If we were all Shulgins, for example, devoting our lives to exploring, engineering and writing about disparate state spaces of consciousness, then our conception of cross-domain cognitive expertise would be different than if we were all, say, games players. Thus if a digital computer can beat the world chess champion, draughts champion, ‘Go’ champion (etc), are we dealing with a polymathic superintelligence? Or a glorified idiot savant? In practice, presumably "cyborgisation" is likely to accelerate. Yet instead of organic minds "uploading" ourselves à la Kurzweil to classical computers and becoming digital zombies, (on one scenario) a tiny unobtrusive implant will allow serious psychonauts - should we ever so desire - to beat the unenhanced human world chess /draughts / ’Go’ champion, outperform the world's top unenhanced human medical specialist - and much else besides.
* * *
Will sentient beings be superseded by digital zombies?
Tor, I suspect some of our background assumptions may be different, but here goes...
One's perspective on AI will vary depending on whether you're, say, a Kasparov or a Shulgin. It doesn't matter that a digital zombie like Deep Blue isn't capable of local or global phenomenal binding. Lack of a unitary self or unitary perceptual consciousness is computationally irrelevant to the gameplay of chess. Insentient Deep Blue is more than capable of posing a local, global and existential threat to Kasparov. But compare a Shulgin, spending his life designing tools systematically to explore different state-spaces of consciousness. Such behaviour is completely unintelligible to a digital zombie – and physically unpredictable with finite computational resources too. A digital zombie is invincibly ignorant of a vast range of problem-spaces that phenomenally-bound sentient agents can and do explore. IMO, we need a richer conception of computation than Turing-machine functionalism that embraces both the first-person and third-person properties of phenomenally-bound matter and energy. Critically, the distinction between first- and third-person properties cannot be entirely clean or else we wouldn’t have the causal capacity to talk about subjective properties in the first place. [How organic sentients manage classically impossible phenomenal binding is a very deep question. But I take it as read that we want to avoid Chalmersian dualism:
A couple of other points. I suspect many computer scientists would think of consciousness as some obscure corner-case that can be quarantined off from the rest of cognition. A Kasparov might say something analogously dismissive of a Shulgin, and vice versa; the point is that if we are talking about general artificial intelligence, let alone full-spectrum superintelligence, we can't sensibly restrict the class of problems that AI can tackle to a narrower range of problems than the intellectual challenges explored by human cognitive agents. Note I’m not arguing that “narrow” digital AI isn't potentially dangerous - Kasparov (or the late Jihadi John) would agree. But that's different from imagining that humanity faces some sort of zombie coup.
Second, we needn’t believe in a complete Kurzweilian fusion of humans and AI to recognise that all of narrow AI's cognitive capacities can be incorporated within ourselves. With a neurochip, you can outplay Kasparov and do all the other things digital zombies can do – and a whole lot more.
So yes, I do anticipate a future of recursively self-improving robots – us.
* * *
“run brain-inspired algorithms” Tor, that’s the key. A Turing machine is substrate-neutral. By contrast, I reckon classically impossible phenomenal binding taps into the world’s fundamental quantum substrate. Exploiting its computational power and running real-time world-simulations has been the key to the evolutionary success of organic robots over the past 540 million years. It’s why a bumble-bee can outperform DARPA’s finest.
Question. What is consciousness “for”? Does the answer matter for building AGI? Investigators offer all sorts of possible evolutionary answers for the function of consciousness. As far as I can tell, they don’t work – none of them. In each case, a p-zombie could apparently do the same. Mainstream materialist science simply has no explanation – neither an “ultimate” evolutionary explanation nor a proximate biological explanation – of consciousness. At best, consciousness would seem causally redundant. And yet if consciousness were causally redundant, how can we talk about and investigate its properties? For what it’s worth, I take seriously the view that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, the mysterious “fire” in the equations – consciousness is not “for” anything. On this view, i.e. monistic physicalist idealism, strictly speaking all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy; but I won’t explore this conjecture here.
Instead, let’s ask what phenomenal binding is computationally-functionally “for”. Here a relatively clear answer can be given. In order to appreciate the sheer computational-functional power of phenomenal binding, most notably the capacity of our minds to run cross-modally matched phenomenal world-simulations in almost real time, we just need to consider rare neurological syndromes where local or global phenomenal binding partially breaks down, e.g. simultanagnosia, cerebral akinetopsia (“motion blindness”), florid schizophrenia, etc. The results are functionally devastating.
So we have at least a partial explanation of why consciousness computationally matters? Yes and no. In an evolutionary sense, yes: phenomenal binding is genetically hugely fitness-enhancing. Even a limited failure of phenomenal binding is debilitating. In a deeper sense, no. By analogy, if “psi” powers existed (no, IMO), then we could “explain” their existence by invoking the genetic adaptiveness of telepathic prowess. No doubt; but without an explanation of how such mysterious powers were physically possible, the mystery would remain. The problem is that phenomenal binding - on any conventional neuroscientific account - is no less physically impossible than psi, whether for skull-bound American minds, a termite colony, or a pack of membrane-bound neurons comprising the CNS. No story of functional connectivity explains how elementary classical “pixels” of experience could combine to generate perceptual objects populating unified world-simulations run by a unitary subject of experience.
Ask an AI researcher what he thinks are the computational advantages of what Kant called the “transcendental unity of apperception” and you’ll get a funny look; but without it, we’d at most be helpless micro-experiential zombies…
* * *
The myth of digital sentience
("We might be able to replicate the human brain long before we understand it")
* * *
* * *
Google has solved the purpose of life?
("Google’s artificial-intelligence bot says the purpose of living is 'to live forever'")
One suspects that Google’s Indian counterpart might decide that the purpose of life was moksha.
And maybe a God-like ethical superintelligence would draw similar conclusions.
How large are your molehills?
("Sense of purpose makes molehills out of mountains")
* * *
Not a Pulitzer yet, but I wonder how many Facebook users are bots?
("And the Pulitzer goes to… a computer")
"Didn't Turing prove that machines can think"? Matt, we risk a fallacy of equivocation here. In answering whether non-organic robots can see colours, it's normally obvious whether we are considering the behavioural capacity to distinguish different spectral frequencies (yes) or phenomenal redness etc (no - unless you believe that spectrometers undergo colour qualia). The meaning of the question typically less obvious when we're asked whether non-biological machines can think. Is the questioner asking about a behavioural capacity? Or the phenomenology of first-person thought-episodes as disclosed by introspection? Or both?
Depending on one's theory of mind, it can of course be argued that one day non-biological machines will support both the behavioural capacity AND the first-person phenomenology. As you know, I'm sceptical that classical digital computers will ever be unitary subjects of experience. But either way, Turing didn't prove that non-biological machines will ever be capable of conscious thought.
* * *
A huge range of problems that sentient agents investigate are too difficult for a classical digital computer to pose, understand or solve. So the term "general intelligence" here is a misnomer. A digital zombie cannot explore the nature, varieties and binding of the "program-resistant" subjective properties of matter and energy; and the belief that digital computers are going to "wake up", become phenomenal subjects of experience (how? when? why?), and undertake any such investigation rests on faith, not empirical evidence. Full-spectrum superintelligence entails a seamless fusion of the formal and subjective properties of mind - not a distinction that can be completely clean, or else we wouldn't be able to allude to or investigate these first-person properties in the first instance. In short, the future belongs to recursively self-improving organic robots - i.e. us - augmented by "narrow" AI, not digital zombies.
* * *
Will digital zombies replace sentient beings?
("Singularity, Virtual Immortality and the Trouble with Consciousness")
[Adam Summerfield writes] "What if the universe is a simulation, and the creators of the simulation aren't conscious / lack awareness qualia?"
If consciousness were causally impotent or redundant, as Turing machine-inspired conceptions of (super-)intelligence assume, then there doesn’t seem anything incoherent about a non-sentient Creator. On the other hand, if consciousness is causally essential to a whole range of cognitive tasks, not least examining the nature of consciousness as now, then the idea of an insentient superintelligent Creator is probably a non-starter. A Turing machine functionalist might respond that there is nothing we are doing now that a physically identical p-zombie or micro-experiential zombie couldn’t do, thereby demonstrating that consciousness is either causally redundant or impotent. But this objection begs the question of the intrinsic nature of the physical – i.e. whether the fire in the equations experiential or non-experiential - and the classicality or otherwise of phenomenal binding. In short, nice idea: I'm just sceptical!
* * *
Do organic robots have a long-term future?
* * *
Correy, one of the cognitive capacities of organic minds - but not digital zombies - is our ability to create and investigate entire space-spaces of consciousness that have not been recruited by natural selection for any information-signalling purpose at all.
Richard, many thanks for the paper. Could you possibly clarify? When you say that phenomenal experiences are "mysteries that lie beyond our reach." are you arguing that 1) some "element of reality" is lacking from the formalism of (tomorrow's) physics; or the weaker claim that 2) we don't currently have any understanding why the solutions to the field-theoretic equations yield the particular phenomenal textures they do?
Alas a utilitronium shockwave doesn't make the dirty dozen:
("The 12 terrifying ways researchers think human civilisation is most likely to end")
Ought we to ban discussion of classical utilitarianism in case it dictates destroying human civilisation with a utilitronium shockwave?
The allegedly apocalyptic ramifications of negative utilitarianism are well known; less so the disguised implications of classical utilitarianism. (Press Button Here)
* * *
Can we engineer a superhuman capacity for spiritual experience?
("Scientists seek religious experience in their subjects' brains")
Biotech can in principle deliver life-long spiritual ecstasies more profound than anything accessible even to hyper-religious temporal lobe epileptics today. When Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" says "I would give my whole life for this one instant," the prince barely hints at what spiritual life could be like for our genetically enriched descendants. Pop-scientists have written about the "God gene". But enlightened use of CRISPR technology could create "God genomes" whose offspring engage in a recursive cycle of spiritual self-improvement.
Time to offer my purple prose to the Templeton Foundation - perhaps for a token million-dollar honorarium?
Superintelligence, superlongevity, superhappiness...key elements of the transhumanist vision are anticipated in the Bible. From its early days, the transhumanist movement has had religious currents. The Simulation Argument has given theodicy a new lease of life. [Why might an effectively omnipotent Creator have designed a world with so much suffering?] As a secular scientific rationalist, I'm personally sceptical of religious metaphysics - and I reckon we're living in reality's grimy basement. But if transhumanism is to become a global mass movement, is there a case for building bridges - or at least not burning them if we can avoid it?
("The Physics of Christianity")
* * *
David, yes, 2CB is itself extreme dose-sensitive, so the MAO-inhibiting action of Tribulus - though weak, partial and reversible - could indeed dramatically potentiate 2CB's effects. Sadly my own career as a psychonaut is on hold until my frail Darwinian mind can be re-engineered to be more robust!
Evidence for a God/Simulator? Or Everett?
("New evidence for anthropic theory that fundamental physics constants underlie life-enabling universe")
Scientific discovery or anthropomorphic projection? Can digital computers think?
("EDGE on Thinking Machines")
Edsger Dijkstra remarked that "The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim." But just as fish can do all sorts of things beyond the wit of a submarine, we can think thoughts inconceivable to a digital zombie.
* * *
What will be the architecture of a full-spectrum superintelligence?
("The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic")
[on pain-ridden robots]
Jera, I'm always impressed by people who actually build things rather than (merely) philosophise. That said, when talking about pain (or blueness, or the taste of peppermint, or a musical jingle) it's vital to distinguish the subjective experience from normal functional role despite our tendency to give both the same name. Thanks to evolution, particular kinds of "raw feels" and functional role typically go together in naturally evolved organic robots like us, e.g. if you sustain acute tissue damage from stubbing your toe [and if you don't have congenital analgesia], then you feel a sharp stabbing phenomenal pain. But phenomenal pain and the function of nociception are [in the jargon of neuroscience] "doubly dissociable", i.e. you can have one without the other. Tragically, some people undergo chronic, functionless "neuropathic" pain, whereas other people can learn to respond to noxious stimuli without undergoing the nasty "raw feels" to which the rest of us are prone. In my view, smart prostheses in an HI future promise to get rid of the nasty "raw feels" without loss of function.
Doctor Haikonen's creations are capable of nociception. But are they conscious subjects of experience?
I could now go off on a (long) speculative spiel on how consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and how macroscopic quantum coherence of distributed neuronal feature processors may solve the phenomenal binding problem.
But what we really want is an experimental test of competing hypotheses!
Construction of a digital thalamic bridge between your mind-brain and Doctor Haikonen's device will, on my account, not induce a unitary subject of experience.
On Doctor Haikonen's account, "mind-melding" between organic and his conjectured silicon subjects of experience should be feasible.
Back to the lab...
* * *
Raddest? I guess money talks...
("Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man")
Adriano, pain asymbolia sounds an exotic neurological condition. But perhaps just introspect next time you need to take a strong opioid for pain-relief. Typically, the relevant sensory stimulus persists, but its phenomenal nature has changed. It's not subjectively distressing, and thus not urgent or important. Or to use another anomalous-sounding example: it's not as though masochists have an inverted pleasure-pain axis compared to non-masochists. Rather, various otherwise noxious or humiliating stimuli trigger in masochists the release of intensely rewarding endogenous opioids. In other words, "they" are just like "us".
In a different vein, I agree with Andres about exploring the varieties of sentience. It's frustrating how little AI researchers have to say about creating recursively self-improving super-Shulgins:
Classical digital computers are incapable of investigating "program-resistant" subjective states of consciousness. Humans have only begun to explore a tiny fraction of state-spaces of consciousness; but there's no evidence that digital zombies can solve the phenomenal binding problem and explore them at all. Fears of a zombie putsch staged by invincibly ignorant information-processing systems like digital computers strike me as overblown.
* * *
What will transhuman and posthuman selves be like? What kind of self-conception has an AI digital zombie?
("Stan Persky on Self: Philosophy in Transit. Self, with or without Selfies")
Contra the reviewer, my head contains lots of homunculi.
Organic minds can experimentally investigate the countless varieties of consciousness. (cf. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6c4c7f2a-eca3-11e3-a754-00144feabdc0.html) By contrast, a digital zombie has no unitary phenomenal self, or phenomenally bound experiences to explore: it's not even "all dark inside". Why organic minds are not simply discrete, decohered, membrane-bound patterns of Jamesian "mind dust" is a deep question.
[on the Simulation Argument]
Whether dreaming or awake, each of us has direct access only to the world-simulation run by one's mind-brain. In that sense, living in a simulation is inseparable from the human predicament.
But as scientific realists, we normally reckon that we've good grounds for believing that the contents of our awake minds track and causally co-vary with basement reality, i.e. we are naturally evolved biological organisms.
However, if the Simulation Hypothesis (not to be confused with the Simulation Argument) is true, then this assumption is false.
In my opinion, the Simulation Argument offers the first interesting argument for the existence of a Creator in two thousand years.
Do I believe that we're living in an Ancestor Simulation?
No. Here are two technical and one ethical grounds for scepticism.
First, the Simulation Hypothesis supposes that sentient beings can (somehow) “emerge” at different levels of computational abstraction. This assumption is quite common among AI researchers Sooner or later, it's widely supposed, our digital computers and silicon robots are going to “wake up”. Perhaps soon too we'll be able to scan, digitise and “upload” our minds.
This isn't the place for a treatise on the philosophy of mind. Here I'll just say that I doubt that classical digital computers will ever become unitary subjects of experience or solve the phenomenal binding problem. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com)
Secondly, many arguments rely on suppressed premises, background assumptions and presuppositions. Most of these background assumptions are harmless: it would be tedious to recite them all. But if one is going to draw upon any one of these background assumptions when setting out a momentous conclusion, then the assumption in question needs to be made explicit from the outset. By analogy, one isn't normally obliged when recounting one's recent experiences to say that one was awake while they occurred. But if one's later narrative depends on the fact one was dreaming at the time, then this circumstance should be stated at the outset. Likewise, when setting out the premises of one's argument, one isn't normally obliged to set out one's assumptions about the nature of meaning and reference. But if - as in the Simulation Argument - the conclusion of one's argument is going to subvert those same background assumptions about the nature of meaning and reference, then the assumptions need to be made explicit at the outset too.
Anyhow, technical worries aside, the real bite of the Simulation argument comes when one considers whether running Ancestor Simulations is the kind of thing that a superintelligent civilisation might want to do.
Naively, running an Ancestor Simulation sounds cool. How many people, if you asked them today, would pre-reflectively respond “Yes!”? Roaming with dinosaurs, bringing back grandpa - great!
However, ask those same people if we should, say, recreate Auschwitz, or bring back surgery without anaesthesia, or re-introduce smallpox [etc] and they'll respond that such a proposal would be absurd and immoral.
Yet the former scenario entails the latter.
Of course, perhaps posthuman superintelligence wouldn't understand the implications of what it's doing by running an Ancestor Simulation. However, this possibility would seem to undercut the notion of superintelligence.
For what it's worth, IMO the existence of the suffering in the world is the signature of life in our god-forsaken Basement.
* * *
"Is this the real life? Or is this just fantasy?"
The theodicy fact-checker at number nine caught my eye.
* * *
"Could we all be asleep, and reality is nothing but an illusion?"
Probably not. But perhaps post-humans will reckon thought-episodes undergone in the medium of today's ordinary waking consciousness were no less psychotic than dreaming - and incapable of being understood "from the inside".
Dean, well, if physicalistic idealism is true, then whether one is dreaming, awake, or in any other state of consciousness, one instantiates a tiny part of the “fire” in the equations, the intrinsic nature of the physical. And one can never “step outside” that fire in order to understand how the properties of the medium are shaping what one conceives to be the content of one’s thoughts. But of course perhaps I’m mistaken about the intrinsic nature the physical and the basis of phenomenal binding. Thus a negative result from the experiment I outline and the entire position crumbles.
[on the Hedgehog's dilemma]
How would you solve the Hedgehog's dilemma?
Safe and sustainable enhancement of opioid function would mean we wouldn't need each other's company any more.
Safe and sustainable enhancement of MDMA-like consciousness (crudely, triple enrichment of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine function) would mean we all loved each other.
Both solutions have pitfalls.
How pure is your inner Buddha nature?
How keenly do you celebrate the good fortune of others?
("Your brain's response to others' good news depends on empathy")
What would a super-oxytocingergic civilisation be like?
("Oxytocin May Enhance Social Function in Psychiatric Disorders")
Life is short, cheat on your wife."
Do you ever pine for a return to traditional family values?
("One million Britons sign up to extra-marital affair dating website")
Beware the wickedly handsome?
("Good-looking men are more likely to be selfish")
Always assume the worst - though even if you do, it's easy to find you've been too optimistic.
Do you fall for the disarmingly arrogant?
("Why cocky guys get the girl")
The science of loverese:
("Terms of Endearment: Why Do We Use Pet Names in Relationships")
Not quite OKCupid:
("The No.1 mullahs dating agency")
Roll on smart sexbots? News from "The Revolutionary Alliance Of Men Whom Women Find Unattractive":
AVPR1A@: the "infidelity gene" for women?
Sometimes I wonder whether posthuman life will resemble a feast of reason or a bacchanalian orgy.
("Sex toy injuries rocket after release of Fifty Shades of Grey")
Is romantic love a chemically curable disorder?
("Cure for love: Chemical cures for the lovesick")
Could a predisposition to behave in nasty ways that make other people depressed be a sinister example of Dawkins' “Extended Phenotype” at work? Mood elevation is associated with dominance and behavioural activation. By contrast, depressed mood is associated with a tendency to behavioural withdrawal, subordinate behaviour, “keeping one's head down”. Other things being equal, dominance behaviour is good for one's reproductive success - or rather, it's a high-risk, high-reward strategy. A conditionally activated genetic predisposition to make other people miserable – not least, rival males - could be genetically adaptive. I wonder how this grim conjecture could be tested.
[on a post-Galilean science of mind]
("Dinosaurs might have been tripping on LSD-like fungus")
The only (potential) way to understand the state-spaces of consciousness induced by, say, DMT, LSD, ketamine (etc) is to take these agents oneself. It's hard responsibly to recommend such experimentation until humans get our reward circuitry sorted. But the drug naïve are in for a shock beyond their wildest imaginings. Drug naïve philosophers (and academic psychologists!) who write tomes on the mind without having explored psychedelia are like pre-Galilean scientists - or, less kindly, Cardinal Bellarmine.
* * *
Were the first minds pre-Cambrian?
("Complex nerve-cell signaling traced back to common ancestor of humans and sea anemones")
How does the brain create serial logico-linguistic thought?
("What Happens When You Can’t Talk to Yourself? How a missing inner monologue affects the sense of self.")
* * *
The technical capacity to build reversible thalamic bridges should finally lay radical scepticism about other minds to rest - a problem traditionally reckoned insoluble. But that's not the really interesting issue with p-zombies. The challenge is explaining why p-zombies are impossible given what scientifically literate people think we know about the nature of the physical.
The conceivability of zombies assumes that the intrinsic nature of the physical - "what breathes fire into the equations" - is non-experiential. This assumption is plausible. But it's not an empirical discovery. By contrast, if the intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential - i.e. fields (or branes etc) of experience - then asking why we are not zombies is asking why something physically impossible isn't the case.
David Chalmers does consider the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. But Chalmers believes that such a conjecture can't explain why we're not micro-experiential zombies - in the sense that the USA is a micro-experiential zombie, i.e. there is no pan-continental subject of experience who feels angry, hears a symphony, or watches a movie. Instead there is just 320 million skull-bound minds. Chalmers claims that neither classical nor quantum physics can explain the phenomenal binding of our minds.
I agree with David Chalmers about the impossibility of a classical explanation of phenomenal binding. Membrane-bound "mind dust" can't support phenomenal binding into unitary experiential objects apprehended by a unitary self any more than skull-bound Americans can generate a unitary pan-continental subject of experience. I also agree that the Penrose Orch-OR model - and any other "dynamical collapse" theories of QM - are untenable.
So are we forced to embrace "naturalistic" dualism?
Not quite yet...
* * *
We won't begin to understand the properties of matter and energy until consciousness studies becomes an experimental discipline:
("Reclassify psychedelic drugs so we can properly research them, says leading psychiatrist")
This isn't a widely accepted view in university physics departments.
* * *
David, first, great stuff. I'm with you all the way until your final section, when you consider the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, the ultimate "fire" in the equations. You'll forgive me for focussing on where we differ.
"We'd have to assume that the real “substances” that make up the world are something like ‘minds’ or ‘selves,’ and that the velocity of a particular electron—for example—“emerges” in either the weak or strong sense from something like the electron’s felt desire to go a particular speed, or the electron’s feeling of a certain subjectively registered qualitative degree of felt “anxiety.” If the Hard Problem left materialism incapable of working to get experience coherently out of physical processes, then this ‘emergent’ form of panpsychism is equally absurd and inadmissible and fails just as much to offer any conceivable way of getting physical processes out of experiential roots." Two points here.
First, physicalistic panpsychism (or "Strawsonian physicalism") isn't animism. Perhaps compare how microelectrode studies of an awake, locally-anaesthetised subject suggest that stimulation of a single neuron elicits a fleeting speckle of light or hiss of sound. Experience that is much more primitive, faint and fleeting than a hiss or speckle is envisaged as characteristic of the non-living world.
Secondly, what you're calling "emergence" is really the question of how the fundamental quantum field-theoretic formalism gives rise to the appearance of "particles" and the gross macroscopic properties that we naively call the "physical". Recall that, unlike classical physics (or introductory texts on quantum mechanics), particles aren't fundamental in relativistic quantum field theory - what scientists would tell us is our best contemporary guide to the structure of reality. The wavefunction of the universe is standardly represented as a field in configuration space. Formally, the field assigns a complex-valued amplitude to each point in the space. Temporal evolution is always via the Schrödinger dynamics (or its relativistic generalisation).
So what is the intrinsic nature of this field in configuration space - the "fire" in the equations?
A materialist [I use the term in the broadest sense] would assert that this fundamental quantum field is essentially non-experiential. If so, then we face the intractable Hard Problem of consciousness of materialist metaphysics. By contrast, a non-materialist physicalist conjectures that the field is experiential. Thus the working assumption of a scientific realist, physicalist and wavefunction monist [like me] is that sentient beings are wavefunctions in configuration space - fields of subjective experience whose exact textures of consciousness are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe's configuration space. Hence physicalistic idealism. Every mathematical property of the wavefunction (except the overall phase) corresponds to some subjective property of the physical world. This conjecture leads to novel, experimentally testable predictions. If they aren't borne out, then the conjecture is falsified.
Perhaps compare David Chalmers. Chalmers does explore the possibility that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. But Chalmers rejects the proposal primarily because of the "structural mismatch" between the phenomenology of our experience and the microstructure of the CNS. Alas this is too quick. To refute physicalism, Chalmers must demonstrate a structural mismatch between the phenomenology of our minds and the configuration space of quantum field theory - not in the homely three-dimensional space of classical physics. He doesn't do so.
So how do an approximation to gross classical worlds and their properties arise?
Well, here we come to the decoherence program in post-Everett QM:
I could go on. But I can sense you hopping up and down in frustration (sorry!). So I'd better stop...
* * *
David, we both agree that consciousness has causal efficacy – though we disagree over whether this is because consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. We also agree that in our current ignorance consciousness is deeply mysterious. Less obvious is that the meaning and reference of the term "physical" is deeply mysterious too. This double obscurity muddies so-called identity theories. What you are calling physical properties are on my view derivative – the (weakly) emergent properties of the quasi-classical “worlds” of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics. Let's assume, provisionally, wavefunction realism is true. The view that high-dimensional configuration space is the realm of physical reality is contentious, but I can't defend it here. (Alyssa Ney gives a good account:
A materialist and non-materialist physicalist will disagree over whether the intrinsic properties of the field in configuration space whose values are encoded by the wavefunction are non-experiential or experiential. If they are non-experiential, then the Hard Problem, epiphenomenalism, dualism and a veritable House of Horrors rears its head. By contrast, if they are experiential, then a fertile working hypothesis is that no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best scientific account of the world. Best of all, it's a falsifiable conjecture: IMO physicalists of all stripes should rise to David Chalmers' challenge. Note that I'm not identifying experience with some pre-theoretical classical conception of the physical - and certainly not with cheesy wet brains occupying the three-dimensional space of perceptual naïve realism. All each of us directly knows – each all of us can ever directly know – is a tiny part of the “fire” in the equations. What is it precisely you believe that non-experiential “fire” in the equations can do that its experiential counterpart cannot do?
* * *
David, you are of course correct to say that it's no part of any ordinary conception of qualia to conjecture they disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical, just as it's no part of any ordinary conception of the "fire" in the equations to speculate that it's qualia. The proposal is so far removed from our intuitions that when uncompromising materialist Stephen Hawking confessed our ignorance of its nature, he didn't consider the possibility even worth discounting. But that's precisely what is at issue.
First, if we are going to be scientific realists rather than instrumentalists, then the idea of anything resembling a point particle - or a micro-quale! - speeding through three-dimensional space ["an electron’s velocity as emerging in some way from its qualia–feelings", as you put it] isn't tenable. In quantum field theory rather than basic quantum mechanics, there are no particles, only fields and field quanta. What we call "particles" by analogy with classical physics are emergent entities supervening on the underlying quantum fields.
We can be realists about the wavefunction in configuration space, not three-dimensional space.
Assuming scientific realism, a high-dimensional configuration space of the universe is the realm of physical reality, not a three-dimensional space or a four-dimensional space-time - or even an eleven-dimensional realm of M-theory. For a nice review of an important volume of essays, see:
Further, there is a sense that in modern physics, nothing ever happens, so to speak:
http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf (“Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation”)
This is sometimes called the "Problem of Time". And it isn't a fringe view either. Physicists like Lee Smolin (cf. “Time Regained”
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/06/time-regained/) are very much in the minority.
Anyhow, back to non-materialistic and materialistic physicalism. If non-materialist physicalism is true, and if wavefunction monism is correct, then sentient beings are presumably wavefunctions in configuration space - fields of subjective experience whose exact textures of consciousness are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe's configuration space. Every mathematical property of the wavefunction (except the overall phase) corresponds to some subjective property of the physical world. Of course, this isn't the view of the materialistic majority of wavefunction monists. A materialistic physicalist would say [or rather assume] that the wavefunction can be considered as an inherently non-experiential field in configuration space, assigning values to the points of that space that can be treated as intrinsic non-experiential properties occurring at the points of that space. Given that neither of us are materialists, I won't rehash the Pandora box of problems this kind of view spawns.
Perhaps note that the provisional claim that no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of quantum physics is not the claim that we understand the formalism in any deep sense, i.e. why the solutions to the equations hypothetically yield the subjective textures they do. IMO, we're more like illiterate tribesmen who have stumbled across magical formulae that we can manipulate but do not understand - and here I include here brilliant mathematical physicists whose ability I can only envy.
* * *
Robert, apologies, above I was assuming wavefunction realism. I then contrasted the responses of materialist- and non-materialist physicalists to what such realism entails. Neither are pretty for common-sense or for classical conceptions of reality.
But what if we adopt a Copenhagen-style "epistemic" interpretation of the wavefunction? Well, it's hard to make sense of double-slit experiment [using electrons as hotlinked above] if a purely epistemic interpretation is correct. Worse, the weirdness of QM infects the whole of reality, not just microphysics, as illustrated by Wigner's Friend:
Also a realistic interpretation of the wavefunction is essential in everything from cosmology to building quantum computers [I should say "artificial" quantum computers if one think's Nature got there first.]
For more perhaps see:
* * *
Robert, I'd hesitate to call Copenhagen "woo". The superposition principle has been tested up to the scale of fullerenes; but there's quite a leap from C70 to the entire cosmos.
If you want to read an extremely technically competent neo-positivist, see Luboš Motl:
(Luboš is also perhaps the multiverse's most vituperative physicist - but he knows his stuff)
I put some (I hope useful) hotlinks in my Quora answers:
Shouldn't philosophers of mind leave physics to physicists and neuroscience to neuroscientists?
Ideally, yes! But orthodox materialist physics dictates we should be p-zombies; and orthodox classical neuroscience says we should (at most) be micro-experiential zombies. If we don't want to give up on physicalism and the ontological unity of science, then we're going to need to drop at least one blindingly "obvious" assumption we're all making. But which? And critically, can we extract an experimentally falsifiable prediction from anything "crazy"-sounding we explore, rather than just pile more words upon words?
... I hope our sphere of ethical responsibility doesn't extend beyond this planet (the "Rare Earth" hypothesis) and also that all multiverse theories are false. This wouldn't exactly make the task of intelligent moral agents easy - centuries of suffering still presumably lie ahead. But phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering in our forward light-cone would be at least a credible scenario. Other cosmological scenarios can make one's heart sink, not least because it's unclear whether even mature posthuman superintelligence could do anything about them. Of course, if classical utilitarianism is true, our ethical responsibilities are vast either way.
On a personal level, I find the real risk of thinking about cosmology, QM, and Big Picture issues is the sense of moral impotence they can induce. Will the idea of being an Effective Altruist prove intellectually coherent?
Do we live in an infinite multiverse - or in an infinitesimally smaller puddle of 10500 string vacua?
("Is Our Universe One of Many? Here’s How We Can Find Out")
I wasn't entirely clear how we find out. Everett is better supported than M-Theory. But are they the same...
Actually Taylor and Wanga working with 12 dimensional F theory ("The F-theory geometry with most flux vacua -
http://arxiv.org/pdf/1511.03209v1.pdf) calculate 10272;000 Calabi-Yau manifolds; but we may ask an analogous question.
* * *
Terry, intriguing stuff. I guess I'd just ask anyone who believes that plants - unlike, say, dreamlessly sleeping humans - are subjects of experience by what mechanism they suppose that unitary experiential subjects "emerge" from cellulose-cell-wall-encased plant cells:
Fields of experience may or may not be primordial, but we don't want to slide into animism - if we can avoid it at any rate.
Carnivorous plant eats frog
See, it's ok to eat meat! Even plants do it!"
Michael, some of us aspire to greater moral awareness than plants, though the historical record is mixed.
* * *
David, question, when you speak of "observable external macro–reality", do you mean the experiential contents of the world-simulation you instantiate? Or are you assuming a direct realist theory of perception?
[If memory serves, around half of all professional philosophers surveyed in a recent poll said they were perceptual direct realists. So it's best not to take such a basic background assumption for granted.]
Either way, nothing in, say, Maxwell's equations explicitly identifies our pre-theoretic conception of light with electromagnetic radiation. It's an a posteriori identification. This doesn't mean that some "element of reality" was missing from Maxwell's formalism [or more strictly, its quantum-relativistic successor]: we just need to interpret the formalism correctly. Likewise, the conjecture that pure experience is the "fire" in the equations and that we each instantiate part of that fire, i.e. the intrinsic nature of the physical, is a posteriori. But the conjecture can be experimentally falsified by demonstration of a structural mismatch between phenomenology and physics.
Naively, the (ostensible) existence today of a structural mismatch, most notably the existence of local and global phenomenal binding in what orthodox neuroscience says are a pack of discrete, decohered and thus effectively classical neurons in the CNS, is a catastrophic flaw in the conjecture - David Chalmers certainly treats it as such. Yet the ostensible mismatch is actually an opportunity to turn philosophical speculation into experimental science. We needn't be Popperians to recognise that novel predictions (if confirmed) are always more compelling than retrodictions.
* * *
David, what you are calling a "tendency", I'm calling a field - not a classical field but quantum superpositions of states described by the equations of quantum field theory. What, if anything, do you believe that a notional field of something intrinsically non-experiential can do beyond the power of an experiential field - where both (by hypothesis) are formally described by the equations of QFT? This unknown "fire" in the equations is presumably the essence of the physical. Alas, natural science says nothing at all about its nature: physics merely offers a mathematical straitjacket describing its behaviour. How justifiably confident can any of us really be that we understand the intrinsic nature of a quantum superposition? Commonsense may say that its intrinsic nature is something non-experiential. Wittgensteinians might tell us the conjecture that its intrinsic nature is experiential reveals a "category mistake". Grappling with Hempel's dilemma
(cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hempel's_dilemma), some philosophers have chosen the so called "via negativa" and stipulatively defined the intrinsic nature of physical in the terms of the non-experiential. But here we would seem to have reached an impasse.
However, the “panpsychist turn” in modern physicalism offers hope of an escape. The conjecture that our minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical dates back to Schopenhauer. Kant turned on his head! My own first acquaintance with the possibility was via Michael Lockwood ("Mind, Brain and the Quantum: the Compound I":
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/839111.Mind_Brain_and_the_Quantam). Today, its best known exponent is Galen Strawson.
At first blush, the conjecture is simply false: the structural properties of our conscious minds, notably local and global phenomenal binding, are absent from what we've learned from neuroscientific investigation of brain. Neither (an approximation of) classical physics nor, on the face of it, quantum theory (thermally-induced decoherence in the warm wet CNS is exceedingly rapid) can explain why we're not patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust”. So if orthodoxy is correct, then a mathematical structural-account of a physicalistically idealist world founders on the properties of our phenomenal minds.
By contrast, the discovery of a perfect structural match won't, in itself, prove monistic physicalism is true; and it won't prove that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. But the discovery would be stunningly beautiful result - overturning conventional neuroscientific wisdom that nerve cells in the CNS are a bunch of decohered, effectively classical objects.
And if the conjecture of a perfect phenomenal-structural match turns out to be false? Well, then we'd have intellectual progress too: monistic physicalism would pass into the dustbin of history. I don't know if it's true. It's simply my best guess - but an experimentally falsifiable guess.
* * *
David, like you, I get frustrated with scientists who imagine they've transcended philosophy; and the falsification police who suppose there is an infallible demarcation-line between science and non-science. Unlike you, however, I'm (provisionally) a monistic physicalist who believes there is a critical role for scientific experiment. Take your example of the interpretation of quantum theory. Whether Everett or Penrose, GRW or any other "dynamical collapse" theorists are mistaken is an empirically soluble question. The answer won't be decided by philosophers or armchair physicists, but by experiment.
Thus interference effects from Everett branches that have decohered ("split") never disappear completely. Failure to detect them with molecular matter-wave interferometry will falsify Everett. [My own preferred theory of mind and phenomenal binding will likewise be brutally slain by experiment.] Conversely, detection of the telltale non-classical interference effects will falsify Penrose, GRW and Copenhagenists who predict a departure from the unitary dynamics.
Can we be certain that the only theory left standing at the end of all this is true?
No. But we can be confident the others are false. And that's progress.
* * *
David, a couple of points on where we differ, one methodological, and one on your quasi-classical conception of the physical.
First, the role of experiment. Neither of us are naïve falsificationists. We both agree that any finite number of experimental observations is consistent with an infinite number of theoretical explanations. However, the first thing any scientist will rightly ask is whether an unorthodox conjecture – in your case, the falsity of any kind of monistic physicalism, in my case, the non-classicality of phenomenal binding - makes any novel, precise, falsifiable empirical predictions by which science can test its claims. It's not as though we're tackling, say, Planck-regime physics that give M-theorists credible grounds for discounting testability, or some kind of fiendishly conspiratorial Simulation Hypothesis where immunity from empirical falsification is built into our premises from the outset. That's why I very much hope you can devise some novel, empirical test that both sympathiser and critic alike can agree will experimentally falsify (or confirm) your assault on physicalism. Profound theories that don't yield any novel, empirically testable consequences are rare.
Naturally, the risk of conjectures that do lay themselves open to experimental refutation is they turn out to be false. Thus in the molecular matter-wave interferometry experiment I cited above, almost all scientists would predict a negative outcome – either because they are dynamical collapse theorists, or alternatively because they accept the unitary Schrödinger dynamics but predict that thermally-induced decoherence in the “warm, wet and noisy” CNS is too strong and uncontrollable to sustain phenomenal binding of superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors. After all, our phenomenally bound states of consciousness are commonly supposed to arise on a time-frame of scores of milliseconds, not femto-seconds or less! What the hard-nosed scientific critic won't do (well, I'll be flabbergasted if you can find one) is say, “Well, maybe the proposed experiment will indeed yield the conjectured perfect phenomenal-structural match as anticipated. So what? Any finite number of interferometric observations purportedly confirming quantum-coherent superpositions of the neuronal feature-processors in question is consistent with infinitely many theoretical explanations. So I'll still be confident my theory is true and yours is false.”
Science doesn't work like that...
Secondly, you remark, “And if I can actually see the two standing side by side at the same moment (as I can for my physical brain and my subjective stream of conscious experiences)...”
Let's unpack this. What does it mean for you to “see” your brain? Yes, various forms of neuroscanning procedure such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can be performed allowing a dynamic representation of your mind-brain in almost real time. But the “brain” in your visual field external to your body-image is just a toy representation internal to your world-simulation. On pain of perceptual direct realism, it's not really your mind-brain! Recall Bertrand Russell's oft-repeated remark that we never perceive anything but the inside of our own head. For sure, the cheesy wet neural porridge displayed on the computer monitor within your world-simulation causally covaries with some (but not other) features of the coarsely-individuated phenomenal contents of your mind-brain. But this partial mismatch doesn't disprove a mind-brain identity theory. Nor can purely linguistic claims about a priori and a posteriori identity, necessary and contingent truths, analytic and synthetic statements (and so forth) settle the mind-brain conundrum. [Gellner's critique of linguistic philosophy is still well worth reading: http://www.amazon.com/Words-Things-Examination-Linguistic-Neuropsychology/dp/0415345480] After all, the statement “Water is H20” may in one person's conceptual scheme be reckoned (by his lights) necessary, a priori and analytically true, and in another person's conceptual scheme be reckoned (by his lights) a posteriori, contingent and synthetic - or whatever. Likewise, the conjecture that experience does or doesn't disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical can't be ruled out on purely linguistic or conceptual grounds. The nature of the “fire” in the equations – experiential or non-experiential - is still an open question, albeit an open question on which some folk have very strong opinions. Not least, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then the conjecture that the "fire" in the equations is experiential, taken in conjunction with the existence of phenomenal binding, yields weird but experimentally testable consequences. I don't know if it's true; but I want to find out.
Perhaps one of the reasons that we tend to talk past each other is that we're trying to do two different things. In the physicalism.com paper, I was trying to rebut David Chalmers' seemingly conclusive arguments against non-materialist physicalism - Chalmers' “argument from microphysical simplicity” and his “argument from structural mismatch” (i.e. the binding/combination problem). If any “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best scientific theory of the world, i.e. relativistic quantum field theory or its generalisation, then physicalism of any kind is false. In my view, Chalmers is looking for a structural match in the wrong place, i.e. the three-dimensional space of classical physics rather than wavefunctions in configuration space. Realism about quantum theory comes at a high price. But as I understand it, you're not directly trying to show that some “element of reality” is missing from the realistically interpreted formalism of QFT. Rather, you're assuming that we have some sort of pre-theoretic access to the nature of the physical – some sort of perceptual direct access to a Newtonian-like classical world – and then showing how experiences can't be identical with parts of that world. To which I can only say: I agree.
* * *
David, one of the reasons for first and foremost asking boringly if a new conjecture yields any novel, experimentally testable predictions - or whether instead it's immune from empirical falsification - is that philosophers can argue [and argue past] each other until Doomsday. Thus physicalism of any kind may be true of false. But in sociological practice, at least, experimental refutation rather than conceptual analysis is likely to decide the issue. Likewise, I might debate until I'm blue in face with a computationalist who believes that phenomenally bound consciousness can be explained via classical physics. As you know, I argue [from my armchair] that the existence of local and global phenomenal binding - right in front of our virtual noses, so to speak - shows that phenomenally bound minds aren't classical computers. Yet in practice, only independently replicable experiment, i.e. testing for the non-classical interferometric signature of the implicated neurons [neuronal superposition or mere classical synchrony?] will decide the issue to the satisfaction of believers and critics alike.
Anyhow, back to us (I fear) talking past each other. You ask:
"How does the way an electron is feeling causally or ontologically explain its velocity?"
Compare: the conjecture that light and electromagnetic radiation are identical doesn't “causally or ontologically explain” the velocity of light. Nonetheless we have strong grounds for believing the conjectured identification is true. Likewise, the (speculative) conjecture that qualia fields and fields in quantum configuration space are identical doesn't “causally or ontologically explain” the emergence of quasi-classicality - any more than the conjecture that fields of something intrinsically non-experiential in quantum configuration space “causally or ontologically explains” the emergence of quasi-classicality. In our current ignorance, the intrinsic nature of the “fire” in the equations – the essence of the physical - is unknown. On the one hand, the materialist physicalist response opens up the Hard Problem of consciousness. On the other hand, the non-materialist physicalist confronts the ostensible partial structural mismatch between the phenomenology of bound consciousness and [classical] neuroscience, i.e. the binding problem.
How might a critic of non-materialist physicalism might respond? “OK, on this proposal, sentient beings are supposedly wavefunctions in configuration space - fields of phenomenally bound subjective experience whose exact textures are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe's configuration space. But what you haven't done is explain why the solutions to the equations of QFT yield the subjective textures they do.” And this is true! Yet recall my goal is more modest: to learn experimentally if any “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of our best mathematical description of the natural world – or alternatively, whether critics of physicalism like David Chalmers (and you!) are correct.
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Robert, there are indeed conjectures that the "fire" in the equations is spiritual of even divine. But that's not a naturalist like Galen Strawson's position (nor mine, though I arrived at it via Michael Lockwood rather than Strawson). Even so, the existence of primordial fields of sentience rather than insentience is a very implausible conjecture. Thankfully, we're not compelled to reply on intuitions of (im)plausibility alone. If physicalism is true, then no element of our rich bound phenomenal consciousness can be unrepresented in the formalism of physics. Any demonstrable omission, and physicalism is sunk. That's why we should hope that physicalists - not least Strawsonian physicalists - take up David Chalmers' challenge. [Recall I'm not in the least confident I'm correct. Thus a negative result from the interferometry experiment I outlined above would entail my position is mistaken.]
Does reality really have levels? By analogy with the emergence of life from wholly non-living elements, this is the approach of non-Strawsonian, 'materialistic' physicalists to how something wholly non-conscious could have generated consciousness. But whereas life is merely behaviourally novel, the eruption of consciousness from something supposedly wholly non-conscious would be ontologically novel - an unexplained change in the nature of the "fire" in the equations itself.
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Confidence in metaphysical reasoning as a route to truth diminishes if one is asked to exclude oneself and focus entirely on the metaphysical reasoning of other philosophers. I don't (entirely) agree with Peter Unger. I do believe philosophers should thoroughly immerse themselves in science.
http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/06/philosophy-is-a-bunch-of-empty-ideas-interview-with-peter-unger.html ("Empty Ideas")
More specifically, we may disagree over whether [Strawsonian or non-Strawsonian] physicalism is most likely true, or whether phenomenal binding in the CNS is quantum or essentially classical. But what will decide the issue to the satisfaction of rational agents will be scientific experiment – which in this case, is technically highly demanding.
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I enjoy reading Max Tegmark (and Tonini). But one of my frustrations is that Tegmark expressly (cf. 4.43) believes there is no phenomenal binding problem in the first instance - whether the "local" binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into the phenomenal objects of our everyday experience, or the "global" binding of experiences into a fleetingly unitary phenomenal self.
Imagine if (implausibly IMO!) Eric Schwitzgebel is correct (cf. http://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/USAconscious.htm) It transpires that the USA is a pan-continental subject of experience. On learning the news, a self-avowed physicalist then declares there is "no problem" reductively explaining why the USA isn't a micro-experiential zombie of 320 skull-bound minds who intercommunicate (cf. http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness)
Rather, the USA instantiates a “new state of matter”, “perceptronium” with distinctive information-processing abilities (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1401.1219v3.pdf - "Consciousness as a state of Matter")
Insofar as we are
1) physicalists who believe no “element of reality” is missing from our best scientific story of the world as captured in the Standard Model or its generalisation,
2) treat the neurons of the CNS a decohered, classical membrane-bound objects,
then in my view packs of neurons (or Jamesian “mind-dust”) signalling to each other in our skull are in the same boat as the USA. And the USA is a micro-experiential zombie.
Yes, experimentally ruling out possibilities - especially possibilities one didn't think were plausible in the first place - is not very exciting. But it's still progress of sorts. Back to the analogy with life again. The advent of Darwin, Mendel and the Modern Synthesis hasn't proved physicalism is true. But a failure to reduce life to molecular biology would have falsified physicalism. Can phenomenally bound consciousness in all its countless varieties go the same way as life? In the case of non-Strawsonian physicalism, and of Strawsonian physicalism plus quasi-classical physics, no one else seems to have any real idea how an explanation could work. All we've had to date is a series of empty promissory notes. Yet suppose - and here we're going way beyond the experimental evidence - that molecular matter-wave interferometry does reveal a perfect isomorphism between the phenomenology of mind and the formalism of unmodified QFT that I (very) tentatively anticipate. Would this astonishing result prove physicalism? David Chalmers, Phil Goff and others would be confounded; but no, I agree. Yet physicalism would have survived another attempt at falsification. And a negative result? Well I'll certainly call it quits. I can't really say physicalism would be definitively refuted - someone smarter may come up with a better physicalist explanation of phenomenal binding. But if any property of our minds is unrepresented in the formalism of physics, then Strawsonian physicalism and traditional physicalism alike are false. This may not be earth-shattering news if one is already philosophically convinced of their falsity. It would still be an intellectual earthquake for science.
Robert, Christian, thanks. As I've belatedly come to realise, experiment is the key. Most hard-nosed scientists won't have the patience to wade through tons of philosophising. A negative result from the experiment outlined https://www.physicalism.com/#6 demolishes everything I've written. Until recently, the reason that most scientists would confidently predict a negative outcome [and “dynamical collapse” theorists like Penrose (etc) would still do so] is they'd claim that the unitary Schrödinger dynamics breaks down for mesoscopic/macroscopic systems like neuronal networks. But a large (and growing) minority of physicists now take a “no-collapse” approach. And they'd tell you that thermally-induced decoherence is simply too strong for the fleeting neuronal superpositions that must exist [if unmodified, unsupplemented QFT is correct] in the CNS to have any conceivable relevance to our phenomenally bound conscious minds. By analogy, sure, if we probed a chess-board at sub-attosecond timescales, then we'd find the non-classical interferometric signature of fleeting superpositions ("Schrödinger's cat states”) of, say, black and white pawns. But so what? They are just “noise” - functionally irrelevant to the gameplay. Likewise the warm, wet, and noisy CNS.
Maybe so. But let's find out...
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My preferred option? Roeland, crudely, Everett refined by Vaidman.
I try (with varying success) not to treat my favoured interpretation like my football team. But I agree with David Chalmers: a definitive structural mismatch between the phenomenology of our minds and the architecture of the brain would refute both materialist physicalism and non-materialist physicalism alike. Such a mismatch would destroy the ontological unity of science and create an unprecedented intellectual crisis. Unfortunately, a surprising number of extremely smart people e.g. Max Tegmark, MIRI-FHI folk) don't recognise that the phenomenal binding problem is hugely significant – Tegmark doesn't even believe in its existence.
David Chalmers, at least, is modestly confident he knows the answer: neither (an approximation of) classical physics or quantum physics can explain either local or global phenomenal binding. Hence Chalmers' naturalistic dualism. IMO, Chalmers is right about the incompatibility of phenomenal binding with classical physics; I just think he's too quick write off quantum theory. Either way, experiment holds the key. For instance, a negative result to the interferometry experiment whose protocol I outline here
would settle the issue for me at any rate: monistic physicalism would be false. As I said, I try (falteringly) to be a truth-seeker rather than a football-team supporter. And indeed ethically speaking, I'd love to think Everett is false.
Quite aside from the experimentally untested conjecture about bound phenomenal mind / neuronal superpositions that I favour, Everett draws me for three reasons:
1) Ockham's razor - and the standard reasons given in the responses here:
2) Everett explains the seemingly ludicrously improbable “fine-tuning” of the cosmos for life:
Really, the ostensible fine-tuning is just an anthropic selection effect. Otherwise, the universe looks “a put-up job”.
3) Everett is the only interpretation consistent with a zero ontology - the only naturalistic explanation-space I know of for why anything exists at all. Recall the mathematical structure of QM allows indefinitely many - conventionally infinitely many - ways to decompose the quantum state of the Everett's multiverse into a superposition of orthogonal states. Any preferred basis would refute not just Everett but also a zero ontology.
"A theory that explains everything explains nothing."
Perhaps what sounds like a shallow witticism holds a profound truth.
Any similarity to Buddhism? Christian, say anything at all about Buddhism and one is sure to be told one hasn't understood The True Meaning Of Buddhism. No doubt. In search of reasons to procrastinate on writing my book, I've recently turned to answering Quora questions. Whether my answer bears any resemblance to Gautama Buddha's teachings I'll leave better qualified folk to judge.
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Anti-realism? Theory and experiment alike support realism - just not perceptual direct realism or classical physics. Stephen Hawking calls Everettian quantum mechanics "trivially true". Such wave function monism is a realist position, so Hawking’s endorsement of Everett’s multiverse makes his professed positivism rather puzzling. The decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains how quasi-classical Everett branches emerge from the quantum field-theoretic formalism.
Dave, by "everything", I just meant the whole multiverse - the universal state-vector.
Intuitively, that's a lot of information - just as, more picturesquely, we might imagine the Library of Babel holds a lot of information. After all, the Library includes your biography! But in another sense, the Library of Babel - and the state-vector of the multiverse - contains zero information. Information could arise only if and when a "preferred basis" were somehow singled out, just as information could be extracted from the Library of Babel only if a preferred volume could be singled out. And it's not clear that even God could pull off such a trick - let alone poor old post-human superintelligence.
A number of physicists and philosophers have been circling around some kind of zero ontology in recent years:
No, I don't think a zero ontology, as naively understood today, explains our existence. But I do take seriously the possibility that a zero ontology is the right explanation-space where we should be looking for an answer.
Why Does Anything Exist?
Thanks Marco - and Volfango. Perhaps my reply doesn't adequately flag to the reader what is scientific orthodoxy (as the above), what is controversial, and what is idiosyncratic. Of course, the goalposts may change. In the wake of the decoherence program, the status of Everettian QM has moved from idiosyncratic to controversial, among professional physicists at least. I won't claim the same for my views on consciousness.
We tread a fine line between uncovering some deep truth about the world and the utterance of Zen koans. But if the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in the brain - or anywhere else - an informationless zero ontology is slain too.
Christian, perhaps the superposition principle formalises inexistence – the default state we’re vainly trying to specify in supposed contrast with the notional real world and its notional preferred basis and live or dead cats. Intuitively, yes, one can imagine subtracting a component from the universal superposition; but this unphysical idea would miraculously involve creating information. Of course, I’m only speculating. However, the slightest experimentally detected failure of unitarity would falsify, not just Everettian QM, but an informationless zero ontology.
Perhaps it’s worth adding that Everett (and J-M Schwindt) wasn’t motivated by “philosophical” musings on why anything exists. The inference that the information content of the universal state vector may be zero wasn’t (as far as I know) driven by metaphysical speculation, i.e. an attempt to shoehorn theoretical physics into an informationless zero ontology.
A clue to the answer? Or just a spooky coincidence? Or alternatively, factually incorrect - if Everettian QM turns out to be false. Fay, I suspect that anything and everything is formally explained by a single, simple logico-physical principle - the superposition principle of QM. However, even if this (highly!) speculative conjecture is true, perhaps it's an empty victory - because we are invincibly ignorant of countless state-spaces of consciousness that the solutions to the master equation of physics encode.
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“Listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door. Let’s go!” (e.e. cummings)
Christian, my best guess is that some kind of zero ontology is the logico-physical principle that explains our existence – and substantive non-existence. The double-slit experiment
hints at the explanation to everything from phenomenal binding to why we're asking these questions here now. It's impossible for the superposition principle ever to break down on pain of inexplicably creating information ex nihilo.
But what if a zero ontology is the wrong explanation-space for an answer?
Well, then we'd be so bereft of ideas that theological or simulationist arguments couldn't be dismissed out of hand. But is the idea of a self-caused being logically coherent? And if so, is such a being real? We can't just define something into existence.
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To the best of our knowledge, there is only one multiverse. There is no experimental or theoretical reason to believe that the superposition principle in QM ever breaks down. Interference effects from other quasi-classical Everett branches ("universes") that have decohered ("split") never wholly disappear, but it's less of a mouthful to refer to other quasi-classical Everett branches as "universes".
(cf. "The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation" (9780198707547): David Wallace: Books)
My own (idiosyncratic) view is that the superposition principle explains not just all of quantum theory and cosmology, but also why anything exists at all (it's the only logico-physical principle consistent with a zero ontology: information can neither be created nor destroyed, therefore the information content of the universal state-vector of QM must be zero: cf. Jan-Markus Schwindt's http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf); and also the properties of our phenomenally-bound minds (if the superposition principle broke down in the brain, then we'd be nothing but micro-experiential zombies - merely patterns of classical "mind-dust"). However, here we pass beyond the experimental evidence.
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David, I'm with you in one sense: 'Scientific' materialism is a false theory of the world. In another sense, we're still a long way apart because IMO the mathematical formalism of quantum theory exhaustively describes the natural world - including our minds.
Should physicalists reify maths?
Strictly speaking, no IMO - no more than we should reify meaning.
In practice, we can't pursue the enterprise of knowledge without using maths or meanings.
Perhaps see Hartry Field's "Science Without Numbers"
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Can the black magic of first-person facts be scientifically tamed?
("Living life in the third person")
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"Physicalism" is not well-defined. Two separate claims are often conflated: (1) the "stuff" of the world is intrinsically non-experiential and (2) the equations of physics exhaustively describe its behaviour. But idealists can be physicalists in sense (2) And perhaps both claims are false: we don't really know.
Perhaps a particle-based ontology is one reason many critics won't take the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical seriously? The "argument from microphysical simplicity" is one of the two reasons that David Chalmers, for instance, inclines to dualism rather than monistic idealist physicalism. However, in quantum field theory rather than basic quantum mechanics, there are no particles, only fields and field quanta. What we call "particles" by analogy with classical physics are emergent entities that supervene on the underlying quantum fields. Of course, it's natural to assume these fundamental fields are intrinsically non-experiential. Yet this is an additional metaphysical assumption - it's not needed to make QFT work.
Well, normally a field ("numbers in space") is defined purely mathematically. We have good grounds for believing fields are real from their effects. But if physicalistic idealism is true, then presumably the world consists of fields of subjective experience whose exact textures are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe's configuration space.
Neutral monism is worth distinguishing from the view I'm canvassing, i.e. that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. I sometimes call this view "Strawsonian physicalism" [which sounds respectably austere] - though I've no reason to believe Galen Strawson's share my idiosyncratic ideas on the non-classical basis of phenomenal binding.
http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Physical-World-Perspectives-Russellian/dp/0199927359 David Chalmers calls it "constitutive panpsychism".
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Jera, yes. One's objection to "mysterianism" isn't that it's necessarily false; but that it's sterile. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v3/n3/full/nn0300_199.html
One way forward in consciousness research has to be experiment. If someone acknowledges, if pressed, "My conjecture doesn't make any novel, precise, falsifiable predictions", this doesn't show the conjecture in question is meaningless or false. But if so, one wants an explanation of why Nature is conspiring to stop the conjecture from being tested. After all, M-theorists, for instance, have a reasonable excuse for empirical untestability: the energy regime they explore is beyond the realm of any particle accelerator that humans could build. By contrast, Consciousness and phenomenal binding are not Planck-scale phenomena - not exclusively, at any rate. :-)
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Christopher, you remark, “you're just talking about experience when you say 'field.” Yes, one the view I outlined it may [or may not] objectively be the case that the world consists entirely in fields of subjective experience whose behaviour is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and whose values are encoded by the solutions to the equations. On this view, nothing exists over-and-above the experiential “fire” in the equations: it's the essence of the physical.
And the equations themselves? Well perhaps see: http://www.amazon.com/Science-Without-Numbers-Defence-Nominalism/dp/0691072604/
No, I don't remotely claim to know this is the case - though I take the possibility seriously.
By contrast, a dual-aspect view (as I understand it) holds that the physical and the experiential are different aspects or attributes of a unitary reality which itself is neither physical nor experiential.
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[Quora questioner asks] "Are we, human beings, 100% particle and 100% wave?"
If the unitary dynamics of post-Everett quantum mechanics is correct, then we're 100% wave - not in the sense of spatial waves, but rather wavefunctions in configuration space. However, experimentally testing this conjecture will be difficult.
Philosophers like David Chalmers claim that we must embrace dualism because of the "structural mismatch" between the phenomenology of our bound phenomenal minds and the microstructure of the mind-brain and [ultimately] physics, i.e. the phenomenal binding/combination problem.
For scientifically unexplained reasons, our bound organic minds are not simply aggregates of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound neuronal "mind-dust".
Yet is such a structural mismatch real? Or just an artefact of our clumsy tools of investigation and a naive classical conception of the dimensionality of the physical?
Directly testing such a conjecture would be demanding even to posthuman superintelligence because quantum coherent superpositions of 86 billion odd neurons of the CNS are "destroyed" [i.e. effectively lost to the wider extra-neural environment via thermally-induced decoherence in a thermodynamically irreversible way] at sub-femtosecond timescales beyond the reach of contemporary molecular matter-wave interferometry. However, I'd love to learn the result of the conceptually simple but still technical tricky experiment outlined here:
A summer project for a postgrad perhaps?
My own best guess is that next-generation interferometry will reveal a perfect isomorphism between the phenomenology of our minds and the formalism of [unmodified, unsupplemented] quantum physics.
Alas the intuitions of armchair physicists are cheap.
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Matt, on a standard [i.e. non-Strawsonian] conception of the nature of the physical, why we're not -p-zombies is a mystery. So much the worse for materialist metaphysics, IMO. (cf. http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness.../dp/0199927359 - "Consciousness in the Physical World: Perspectives on Russellian Monism" by Torin Alter (Editor), Yujin Nagasawa (Editor)) What we need, however, are testable scientific conjectures. So I focus on the phenomenon where Chalmers, following a long tradition dating back to William James, believes that even non-materialist physicalism fails: the binding/combination problem. Yes, neuroscience can point to the synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors, the transient phase-locking of 40 Hz electrical oscillations in prefrontal and parietal human cortex (etc) when we experience a perceptual object. Yet if our neurons are effectively discrete, decohered classical objects, as we naively suppose, then we should be micro-experiential zombies.
However, if (1) Strawsonian physicalism is true (2) the unitary dynamics of QM doesn't break down in the brain, then at sufficiently short temporal resolutions, phenomenal binding isn't optional: it’s inevitable. Intuitively, the timescales involved are too insanely fast for selection pressure to have got to work. But then intuition would say the same about e.g. the behaviour of the humble robin (cf. http://scitechstory.com/2011/01/24/the-robin-flies-with-quantum-coherence/
Imagine how we’d have responded until a few years ago if someone claimed that “robins fly with quantum coherence”. Crazy!
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Schrödinger's cat exists in a superposition of classically distinguishable states. So too – unless we modify the unitary dynamics - do the distributed neuronal feature-processors of the CNS. Subjectively, what it's like to be in a superposition of neuronal edge-detector, motion-detectors, colour-detectors (etc)? An orthodox response to this question would be "Nothing at all!" For unlike Schrödinger's cat, neuronal superpositions are "destroyed" [effectively lost to the wider environment in a thermodynamically irreversible way] at sub-femtosecond timescales. Intuitively, such ultra-rapid timescales are a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind. (cf. Max Tegmark's "Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer": https://www.hedweb.com/physicalism/quantum-computer.pdf) Scientifically literate commonsense tells us that consciousness (somehow) "emerges" over a timescale of milliseconds via patterns of neuronal firings. Perhaps neuroscience might be off by an order of magnitude or so; but surely not a dozen!
Well, maybe. What is it about consciousness that leads otherwise sane people to say such preposterous things? Consciousness doesn't exist (Daniel Dennett); neuroscience can't explain why were not micro-experiential zombies, therefore dualism is true (David Chalmers); if materialism is true, then the United States is probably conscious (Eric Schwitzgebel). And so forth. The only sensible response for an outsider in these debates is to say: "Probably not.” Yet if we're ever to solve the mystery of consciousness, then at least one totally obvious, taken-for-granted presupposition or background assumption that we are making is presumably mistaken. We just need to fathom what that assumption might be – and test it. However crazy your theory, I'm extremely tolerant of any conjecture that makes novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions whose (dis)confirmation will satisfy friend and critic alike. My best bet is still that the real explanation for consciousness and phenomenal binding is something incredibly strange that no one has thought of (yet). But I'd still love to see the loophole that I describe (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6) experimentally falsified rather than idly philosophised away. Conversely, the experimental demonstration of such an isomorphism between the phenomenology of mind and the formalism of physics would be a truly beautiful result – however implausible such isomorphism now sounds.
Coincidentally, I recently learned that the journalist Ingo Niermann (who did my "Vanity Fair" interview) also did his philosophy doctorate on the phenomenal binding problem – and happens to be a family friend of Anton Zeilinger. The Zeilinger group did the fullerene experiment below:
Schrödinger's cat keeps getting ever bigger. Ingo is highly enthusiastic at the (alleged!) solution to the binding problem and apparently mailed Zeilinger a copy. I'm pretty sure that (like most people) Zeilinger will be incredulous: he's no friend of Everett. But the Zeilinger group is also one of the handful of teams technically competent enough to do the fiendishly hard molecular-matter wave interferometry experiment described.
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From Descartes' Cogito to Julian Jaynes' “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” to Douglas Hofstadter in "Gödel, Escher, Bach", the idea that the origins of consciousness lie in some kind of reflexive meta-cognition has been popular. However, the idea does not explain why we aren't p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies. Nor does the idea explain why many of our most intense experiences, for example blind uncontrollable panic, are associated with a breakdown of meta-cognitive capacity. As neuroelectrode studies confirm, our most intense and unreflective experiences are mediated by evolutionarily ancient regions of the brain, whereas higher-order recursive thought is typically phenomenally thin and subtle.
Either way, back to the Quora question. I agree with David Chalmers that classical physics cannot explain phenomenal binding. I just reckon Chalmers is too quick to dismiss any quantum-theoretic account in favour dualism. Critically, here we have an experimentally falsifiable hypothesis. Whether or not (what standard neuroscience describes as) synchronously firing patterns of distributed neuronal feature-processors are actually mesoscopic superpositions isn't a “philosophical” question but rather a scientific conjecture to be confirmed or refuted by experiment. Either interferometry will detect a perfect phenomenal-structural match or it won't...
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Dave, I’m deeply suspicious of mathematical / computational platonism too. So why persevere?
Because it will be – to say the least – a spooky coincidence if the superposition principle in QM turns out have universal, unmodified, unsupplemented validity. For if our powerful intuition that there shouldn’t be anything at all were completely misconceived, then why should Nature be hinting an information-less zero ontology? In short, are we looking in the right explanation-space for an answer???
I don’t know what would verify whether we’re looking in the right explanation-space. But we can explore what would falsify it. Here are two ways.
First, theorists do not yet have a theory of quantum gravity. If the superposition principle breaks down in the mathematical formalism of our ultimate TOE, then a zero ontology is falsified too.
(Alas I’m just a passive spectator here: years of training in theoretical physics are needed to make any meaningful kind of contribution.)
Secondly, the most obvious place where the superposition principle (apparently) breaks down is our minds. Thus we see a live cat, or we see a dead cat. Even if Everett is correct, then there is a “branch” of the universal state vector where one sees a live cat, and a branch where one sees a dead cat, i.e. there is no live-and-dead cat superposition.
Well, as you know, I take seriously the idea that superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors are the essence of our bound phenomenal minds – and have been so for the past 540 million-odd years. Without neuronal superpositions, you couldn’t apprehend a live classical cat or a dead classical cat in the first instance: you’d just be a micro-experiential zombie.
Textbook QM says that quantum superpositions can never be directly observed, only inferred (cf. the double-split experiment). By contrast, I conjecture that superpositions are all one can ever know: they are the essence of mind and the pseudo-classical world-simulations that we’ve evolved to run.
In common with most scientifically unorthodox ideas, this conjecture is most likely false! Unlike most unorthodox ideas, this one is experimentally testable with an outcome that can – in principle – satisfy believers and scornful critics alike. https://www.physicalism.com/#6 Just don't hold your breath...
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("Quantum coherent-like state observed in a biological protein for the first time")
Keith, I agree with you that only macroscopic quantum coherence could solve the combination problem and rescue monistic physicalism from the spectre of Chalmersian dualism. But the coherence of biomolecules of individual neurons wouldn’t be enough. Such macroscopic quantum coherence would need to implicate individual superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors. Unfortunately, credible decoherence timescales of quantum superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors ("Schrödinger’s neurons") of femtoseconds or less in the CNS would seem to get the dynamical timescale of our mental life all wrong. Such sub-femtosecond decoherence timescales (i.e. before the phase angles of components of a neuronal superposition are hopelessly scrambled to the extra-neural environment) are intuitively too fast for selection pressure ever to have got to work - in humans if not navigating robins.
Maybe so; but the Chalmersian "structural mismatch" argument for dualism contains a suppressed premise - albeit a very plausible premise. Recall that wave function monists believe that the wave function mathematically represents, completely, fundamentally all there is in the world.
Some wave function monists (e.g. David Albert) believe the wave function represents a real, physical field. The wave function lives in a vastly bigger space than three–dimensional space or four–dimensional space–time. If (1) wave function realism is true, and (2) the wave function represents a real physical field, and (3) experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the Chalmersian “structural mismatch” argument will need to hold not in three-dimensional space or four-dimensional space-time, but rather in configuration space - treated as what physical space really is by its very nature, and not as a mere mathematical construct.
Fortunately, this question will ultimately be settled experimentally. A negative result from the molecular matter-wave interferometry experiment on the lines of https://www.physicalism.com/#6 and I’ll have no answer to David Chalmers' dualism.
Globally replacing organic with silicon neurons would solve the problem of suffering - though with one consequence its proponents might not have anticipated.
("Artificial neuron mimicks function of human cells")
[on the unreality of psi]
("Paranormal Phenomena, Nonlocal Mind and Reincarnation Machines")
If published studies are to be trusted, there is modest but statistically significant evidence for psi. But it's hard to think of any field more susceptible to publication bias. Countless studies have been conducted, mostly small and informal. Perhaps fewer - I would guess far fewer - than 1 in 20 have been published. The studies submitted for publication belong overwhelmingly to the minority that have yielded positive results. Do some fancy statistical meta-analysis on these published studies and, well, seemingly we have a rupture in the unity of science - an intellectual revolution in the making to eclipse relativity and quantum theory of the last century.
Sadly, I remain sceptical.
Boringly conventional Dave.
(Actually, as you know, I believe consciousness is fundamental and only sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions can explain phenomenal binding. But such odd ideas are intended to save physicalism rather than explode it - as would the reality of psi.)
Ben, apologies, to reiterate, I said I was sceptical (not scornful, dismissive or any of the more colourful responses I'm sure you've encountered) If you or anyone else can devise a prospective, replicable test of psi that sceptics (and hostile critics) can carry out, then I'll be the first to congratulate you - even if the outcome is negative.
For the record, I haven't seriously investigated psi since the John Taylor saga. I am not an authority on psi research and don't pretend to be.
[on the Knowledge Argument / Mary's Room]
Thanks Adam. IMO the world (not least our minds) is entirely physical. A background assumption of the Knowledge Argument is that the intrinsic nature of the physical - the mysterious "fire" in the equations - is non-experiential in character. On that assumption, super-scientist Mary - who knows everything about the structural-relational properties of the brain and is smart enough to reduce them to the underlying formalism of physics - does indeed learn something new on being given a colour television monitor. Ergo physicalism is false.
Yes - if the suppressed premise about the intrinsic nature of the physical is true. But is it? Here are a couple of quotes (borrowed from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's “Neutral Monism” entry, the first from Galen Strawson, the second from Michael Lockwood:
'“Many take the [mind-body problem] to be the problem of how mental phenomena can be physical phenomena given what we already know about the nature of the physical. But those who think this are already lost. For the fact is that we have no good reason to think that we know anything about the physical that gives us any reason to find any problem in the idea that mental phenomena are physical phenomena.” (Strawson 2003, 50)
And Lockwood pursues this idea further by hinting at the reasons why one might be tempted to perform this, prima facie, unlikely identification of mental properties with the intrinsic features of the physical. Consciousness “provides us with a kind of ‘window’ on to our brain, making possible a transparent grasp of a tiny corner of a materiality that is in general opaque to us” (Lockwood 1989, 159). '
So why doesn't David Chalmers buy into the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physicalism? After all, dualism – even “naturalistic” dualism - would be an epistemic catastrophe for our scientific understanding of the world.
According to Chalmers, two reasons tell against non-materialist physicalism (beyond the purely psychological criterion of its implausibility): the argument from microphysical simplicity and the argument from structural mismatch (i.e. the phenomenal binding/combination problem).
I wrote my physicalism.com paper as a response to Chalmers':
Although I've long (tentatively) held the position I articulate, what I hadn't done, until recently, is given any serious thought how the conjecture could be experimentally falsified (or confirmed!) to the satisfaction of both sympathiser and otherwise implacable foe of non-materialist physicalism / quantum mind alike. As we know, the natural habitat of philosophers is the armchair (or the bar) not the laboratory. As outlined (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6), the experiment is conceptually exceedingly simple, just technically hard [because of thermally-induced decoherence].
A negative result and I'll simply have no answer to dualists like Chalmers.
In advance of experimental progress, one difficulty here is that some extremely smart people (e.g. Max Tegmark, Nick Bostrom) don't "get" the phenomenal binding problem - and its ramifications for everything from the intrinsic nature of the physical to conscious mind to full-spectrum superintelligence. If you don't believe a problem exists, then you won't be willing to explore far-fetched solutions to a non-existent problem.
Dylan, Max Tegmark explains why he believes "there is no binding problem" (4.4.3) in:
(my response: https://www.physicalism.com/appendix.html)
Nick Bostrom gives the binding problem a line in his otherwise masterly "Superintelligence". But Nick rates it as no more than a puzzle.
Although it's easier to focus on "local" binding, the ramifications of "global" phenomenal binding may IMO prove more far-reaching for the nature of posthuman superintelligence:
If we assign non-negligible probability to the IJ Good / MIRI "Intelligence Explosion" scenario, then alerting the world to the risks of existential catastrophe from AI is doing everyone a favour. Like many folk, I think FOOM scenarios are mistaken. But with refutations as with excuses, one is generally better than a dozen. Of course, even a compelling refutation would still leave "ordinary" AI risks to tackle. Yet they are widely discussed and aren't what makes the IJ Good / MIRI / Bostrom contribution distinctive.
* * *
The mind-dependence of phenomenal colour can be interpreted in various ways. A recent poll of philosophers (cf. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/04/29/what-do-philosophers-believe/)
found that around half were direct realists about perception. On this story, we directly perceive our local surroundings, but somehow our minds "paint on" phenomenal colour (I'll pass over colour realism here:
By contrast, the world-simulation model holds that phenomenal sticks and stones, mountains and sunsets are features of the world-simulation run by one's mind-brain. When one is awake, these phenomenal objects track gross fitness-relevant patterns in the local environment. In other words, the mind-independent external world is a theoretical inference to best explanation, not a given.
Such inferential realism is much better supported by modern science.
The relevance of these two alternative stories here is that when discussing the Knowledge Argument (and the philosophy of consciousness more generally) we often speak as though the world-simulation theory were false. But does, say, a neurosurgeon probing with microelectrodes the neocortex of his awake locally-anaesthetised subject prior to surgery directly see an exposed mass of cheesy wet nervous tissue who reports the effects of the exploratory microelectrode probes? Or instead, is the exposed cheesy wet neural tissue a property of the neurosurgeon's own mind-brain's world-simulation that causally co-varies [via long complicated causal chains] with the mind-brain of his patient and the world-simulation that his patient's mind-brain is running?
Things are much more complicated if post-Everett quantum mechanics is correct, but we won't go into that here!
* * *
Do we merely infer the existence of consciousness? Matt, I fear our background assumptions may be different. Behaviourists and perceptual naïve realists believe that we directly perceive the mind-independent world. We then infer the existence - or perhaps the non-existence - of consciousness on the basis of the behaviour and verbal avowals of others. However, in my view a world-simulation account of perception is more scientifically credible. Thus the difference between dreaming and being awake isn’t that when dreaming one unknowingly has access only to one's own conscious mind, whereas when one is awake one mysteriously transcends one's own consciousness. Rather, when one is awake, one is entitled to make a theoretical inference to the existence of a mind-independent physical world with which the contents of one's world-simulation causally co-vary - and also the existence of other subjects of experience.
The poet Emily Dickinson put it rather more snappily 150 years ago:
"THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside"
* * *
Darren, as both cerebral achromatopsia and tragic cases of people who have lost both their eyes attest, the presence of a retina is neither necessary nor sufficient to experience phenomenal redness. Blinded peripheral trauma victims can still dream in colour. Quite possibly, our retinal neuronal networks do undergo (bound or unbound?) experience of some sort, just as our peripheral nociceptors may undergo phenomenal pain (recall how we often withdraw our hand from a hot stove shortly before we notice the searing pain.) But if so, such experience is "encapsulated". The hypothetical existence of such consciousness isn't directly accessible to the mind-brain; it's only a conjecture.
Once again, here we have what might seem to be a sterile “philosophical” issue that has ethical implications. Brian Tomasik (cf. http://reducing-suffering.org/do-bugs-feel-pain/) argues that we should give serious ethical weight to the suffering of insects (presumably with CRISPR and gene drive technologies: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2014/07/17/gene-drives-crispr-could-revolutionize-ecosystem-management/)
But do insects experience more pain than our own peripheral ganglia? What is the upper bound of utopian nanotech?
OK, I think we've got more important ethical priorities to worry about right now. But this is the sort of issue that planners contemplating the long-term future of sentience in the universe will need to address.
* * *
The Joy of Kant:
("Kant's View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self")
One way to appreciate the computational power of the “transcendental unity of apperception” is to compare the properties of information-processing systems that lack it. The United States of America and a termite colony do (sometimes) behave in ways that systematically lend themselves to description as intelligent. Yet they are micro-experiential zombies, as it were, not unitary subjects of experience.
Kant also distinguishes between the noumenal essence of the world and the realm of phenomena. According to Kant, all one can ever access directly are phenomena. Indeed, it's hard to understand how it's possible to speak intelligibly of the mind-independent noumenal world at all. At most, perhaps we can grasp its structural-relational properties as described by the formalism of physics. But Schopenhauer - and in more recent times Grover Maxwell, Michael Lockwood and Galen Strawson - turns Kant on his head. Actually, there is one tiny part of the noumenal world that one knows transparently as it is in itself, and not at one remove. As Lockwood puts it in “The Enigma of Sentience”:
“Do we therefore have no genuine knowledge of the intrinsic character of the physical world? So it might seem. But, according to the line of thought I am now pursuing, we do, in a very limited way, have access to content in the material world as opposed merely to abstract casual structure, since there is a corner of the physical world that we know, not merely by inference from the deliverances of our five senses, but because we are that corner. It is the bit within our skulls, which we know by introspection. In being aware, for example, of the qualia that seemed so troublesome for the materialist, we glimpse the intrinsic nature of what, concretely, realizes the formal structure that a correct physics would attribute to the matter of our brains. In awareness, we are, so to speak, getting an insider's look at our own brain activity.” (Lockwood 1998, p. 88)
Lockwood himself disavows the full-blown conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical – the elusive “fire” in the equations. The view that experience discloses the noumenal essence of the physical is today most associated with Galen Strawson. The conjecture explains why consciousness can have its otherwise inexplicable causal efficacy - and why there is no Hard Problem.
What the conjecture can't do – according to David Chalmers, Phil Goff, and others - is explain why we're not micro-experiential zombies, so to speak, mere patterns of Jamesian neuronal “mind-dust”. Hence Chalmers' dualism.
However, what might seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical is also the greatest opportunity to put the conjecture to the test. David Chalmers claims that neither classical nor quantum physics can explain local phenomenal binding (i.e. the binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into individual perceptual objects) or global phenomenal binding (i.e. Kant's "transcendental unity of apperception”) If such a structural mismatch in the CNS is real, then traditional materialistic physicalism and non-materialistic physicalism alike both fail.
* * *
("Property dualism and the merits of solutions to the mind-body problem: a reply to Strawson")
Should we make the a priori stipulation that use of term "physical" should exclude the experiential – so that the nature of elusive "fire" in the equations of physics is, simply by definition, non-experiential?
If we don't make such a stipulation, runs this worry, then doesn't physicalism become a vacuous doctrine?
No! (IMO). The mathematical straitjacket of quantum field theory is extraordinarily restrictive. If any aspect of our experience is not correspondingly represented in the formalism of QFT [or its generalisation] then physicalism fails. Confirmation of such an isomorphism doesn't by itself suffice to prove that physicalism is true. But that's a separate issue.
Now in my view, the anti-physicalist can make a powerful prima facie case that aspects of experience, not least phenomenal binding, are missing from the formalism of QFT. But if this omission turns out to be the case, then Strawsonian physicalism isn't vacuous. Instead, it's a substantive claim about the world that turned out to be false. IMO, Strawsonian physicalism is not just a substantive claim about the nature of the physical, but is – or rather it should be cast as - an experimentally falsifiable conjecture.
Two senses of “epiphenomenal” are worth distinguishing. If the "fire" in the equations, i.e. the intrinsic nature of the physical, is experiential, then all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. Seemingly conceivable alternatives are physically impossible; epiphenomenalism is false. However, even if this conjecture is true, then the properties of experience would seem “epiphenomenal” in another sense. Whether a classical digital information-processing system is made of silicon, gallium arsenide, or Turing's original mechanically-operated tape, the (hypothetical) particular subjective micro-textures of experience of the information-processor in question are functionally incidental to its output – mere "epiphenomenal" implementation details. If physicalism is true, then classical digital computers can at most be micro-experiential zombies.
Are organic minds different? Is the phenomenal nastiness of pain, for example, functionally (but not causally) irrelevant to our behaviour - a mere incidental implementation detail, i.e. “epiphenomenal” in the second sense of the term?
I'd argue no – and the reason is tied up with a solution to the phenomenal binding/combination problem; but I won't rehash my ideas again here. [If the wildly implausible experimental prediction made https://www.physicalism.com/#6 is falsified, then my own preferred theory of mind will be demonstrably false.]
I'm broadly sympathetic to Stuart Kauffman's "Beyond Turing" project. Alas like reviewer Jeffrey Goldstein below, I struggle with some of the details:
Regardless of whether we suppose consciousness is or isn't computationally indispensable to any cognitive task, I'm struck by just how widespread is the assumption that sooner or later our classical digital computers are going to "wake up". Double the processor speed a few more times? Add some more sensors? Use a hybrid connectionist architecture? Smarter algorithms? It ain't going to happen (IMO!) I'm just curious when, and how, this realisation will occur; and the ramifications of digital zombiehood for our reigning root-metaphor of conscious mind. At this point, one's interlocutor will normally change tack and switch to an epistemological question. "How do you know my robot isn't conscious!?" (etc) But that's a separate (though important!) issue.
* * *
One potential source of confusion is the term "classical" - as in the distinction between classical symbolic AI (GOFAI -"Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence") and "non-classical", sub-symbolic connectionist AI architectures - themselves sometimes confusingly described, question-beggingly, as "neural networks". "Non-classical" as used here does not mean that the investigator is an advocate of quantum mind as a (non-)solution to the phenomenal binding problem - or anything else. Distributed connectionist networks support only a [functionally] non-quantum parallelism.
Why aren't researchers frantically labouring to do experiments of the kind whose protocol is discussed in section 6 above? Well, even if we take the phenomenal binding problem seriously AND credit only the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, then it's clear that thermally-induced decoherence in the CNS is insanely rapid and (intuitively) uncontrollable - beyond the reach of natural selection to get to work. If we're not smart enough (yet) to perform any experiment definitively falsifying the conjecture that the phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors consists in neuronal superpositions, i.e. that organic minds tap into the “fire" of the quantum-theoretic equations - then presumably Nature isn't smart enough to do so either. Max Tegmark (who admittedly doesn't take the binding problem seriously) regards the sub-femtosecond timescales of neuronal superpositions as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind, not an experimentally falsifiable prediction. Almost everyone seems to agree. Recall that "quantum mind" advocates like Roger Penrose propose to modify the unitary dynamics of QM, not accept the bare formalism at face value.
In one sense I completely agree with David Chalmers. If there is the slightest failure of isomorphism between the phenomenology of our minds and the formalism of [ultimately] physics, then monistic physicalism is false. No big deal, many non-scientists might say. Yet if forced to choose between giving up either physicalism or the effectively classicality of neurons, I'd sacrifice the latter. Either outcome entails an intellectual revolution. If our minds aren't "Schrödinger's neurons" but an aggregate of classical cells, why aren't we akin to a micro-experiential zombie like the USA? Let's hope experiment can clinch the issue one way or the other.
* * *
(Human and Machine Consciousness")
Richard. We both agree that consciousness is real. But is consciousness inexplicable? And will digital computers – and any other effectively classical information-processing systems – ever solve the phenomenal binding problem and become subjects of experience? My working assumption is that QM is formally complete and the superposition principle is ubiquitous. The conjecture the waking/dreaming organic brains are fleetingly unitary quantum coherent subjects of experience, and that classical connectionist systems and digital computers are effectively zombies (strictly speaking, micro-experiential zombies) would be falsified by any experimentally detectable failure of unitarity (“the collapse of the wave function”) but also, critically, by a failure to discover the perfect structural match I tentatively anticipate between the formalism of QFT and the phenomenology of mind.
The experimental protocol I outline (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6) is still too difficult for existing tools of molecular-matter wave interferometry; but a (wildly implausible!) positive result would blow alternative theories out of the water.
Alternatives? How can our respective conjectures be experimentally tested against each other?
Well, presumably rigging up a digital “thalamic bridge” would, on your conjecture, allow organic minds to “mind-meld” with a silicon (etc) robot or an equivalent digital mind-file running on a classical computer. (cf. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html)
By contrast, on my conjecture, there will be no phenomenal mega-mind thereby created: you can’t mind-meld with a digital zombie.
(Off to the lab?
Well, the coffee-shop in my case; but IMO science will settle the issue one way or the other this century - and hopefully in our lifetime.)
Richard, "'[the term 'consciousness' is] used incoherently" is very strong - perhaps too strong? When we opt for, say, anaesthesia before major surgery, most of us have a clear idea of what we want eliminated - including self-avowed eliminativists who profess disbelief in the existence of consciousness. By contrast, the monistic physicalist conjecture I explore is that consciousness - its existence, binding, causal efficacy and countless textures - is exhaustively described by the formalism of our best mathematical description of the world, post-Everett QM.
Richard, I agree: ignorance comes in degrees. Perhaps two senses of lack of understanding are worth distinguishing here:
(1) Some "element of reality" is missing from the formalism of our best scientific theory of the world. Maybe a "hidden variables" account is needed in quantum mechanics to supplement or modify the unitary dynamics. Maybe some new theory involving the "strong" emergence of consciousness is needed. And so forth.
(2) The formalism of our best scientific theory of the world, post-Everett QM, is true and complete. We merely don't know how to "read off" the values of experience from the solutions to the field-theoretic equations.
[I'm going to ignore complications involving gravity irrelevant to the argument here.]
If I understand your position correctly, then you'd endorse (1) - as do e.g. "dynamical collapse" theorists in QM, and materialist believers in the Hard Problem of consciousness.
But my working hypothesis is (2). Monistic physicalism is true.
Critically, the conjecture is experimentally falsifiable.
I'm sane enough to realise that the explanation of why we're not micro-experiential zombies / Jamesian "mind-dust "is probably false. However, it's hard to overstate the problems with existing alternatives.
* * *
Richard, yes, instead of proposing that consciousness is "beyond explanation", I'm arguing instead that the existing formalism of QM exhaustively describes the properties of our minds and the world, i.e. consciousness is completely explicable. Classical digital computers, and classical connectionist systems, are not unitary subjects of experience. This might seem a purely "philosophical" debate. However, like any quantum mind proposal beyond vacuous Chopra-esque metaphor, it's experimentally falsifiable.
[on Schrödinger’s cat]
What became of Schrödinger’s cat?
Garret, our intellectual disagreement just shows why experiment is so critical. Here we have an issue that divides smart and scientifically-literate people - driving e.g. David Chalmers to dualism, Eric Schwitzgebel to claim the USA is probably conscious and me to a desperately implausible quantum mind conjecture. I agree with you about the horrendous challenges involved in in vivo interferometry experiments. That's why - despite holding my views on quantum coherence as the basis of phenomenal binding for over two decades - I’d assumed until recently they were untestable. But using “trained up” in vitro neuronal networks makes the problem potentially tractable - albeit still immensely challenging. And it’s worth stressing again: to vindicate the quantum mind conjecture we're discussing, it's not enough “merely” to detect the non-classical interference signature - this telltale signature must preferentially implicate precisely the feature-processing neurons the synchronous activation of which a standard neuroscientific story would say are implicated in the phenomenal binding of perceptual objects.
If you respond that preferentially finding this nonclassical interference signature in neuronal feature-processors is about as unlikely as discovering that Nature exhibits a preference for fleeting quantum coherent superpositions of black pawns over white pawns, then I'd respond, "Good!": we want experiments the outcome of which both believers and critics of the conjecture being tested antecedently accept will settle the issue. By contrast, compare evidence for quantum coherence in neuronal microtubules – the existence of which will not convince sceptics of Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR. If I'm sounding like a crank who thinks he's discovered the new Michaelson-Morley [etc], apologies! Yes, investigators become over-attached to their pet theories. Most likely I’m mistaken. Stepping back, the real explanation of the Hard Problem, the Binding Problem and the nature of the physical is probably something no one has even conceived. But the stumbling-block to progress here isn’t philosophers and armchair physicists wanting to test crazy theories. Rather, it’s folk with crazy theories that make no novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions.
Garret, the interferometry experiment isn't designed to test the conjecture that our thought-episodes depend on macroscopic quantum coherence (as anything other than an implementation detail). Rather, the interferometry experiment outlined tests a conjecture about the phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors. And to reiterate the point made above, discovering a non-classical interference signature would not, per se, prove the conjecture - merely refute Copenhagen, Penrose and other “dynamical collapse” theorists.
* * *
In some Everett branches, is "Luboš Motl" a Buddhist loop quantum gravity researcher?
("Maverick branches, a proof that Everett's theory is totally wrong")
Luboš, I hope you're right; but I'm still struggling. Could you clarify? Let's assume experimental progress in interferometry continues indefinitely (fullerenes, viruses, neurons…) Presumably an Everettian would claim that with sufficiently sensitive experimental tools, the telltale non-classical interference signature of other quasi-classical "branches" (including intuitively maverick branches) will always be found. Are you arguing that such interferometry experiments will always be impossibly difficult? Or that some departure from the unitary dynamics will eventually be experimentally detected? Or that the vanishingly subtle non-classical interference signature should be given an instrumentalist interpretation? Help! (Sorry if I'm misunderstanding you.)
“Perhaps the clearest physical example against the thesis that only like things can act upon each other is this: In modern physics, the action of bodies upon bodies is mediated by fields — by gravitational and electrical fields.”
(Sir Karl Popper)
David, I fear that a quantum field theorist would tell us that Sir Karl's physics was rusty. The world isn't made of classical bodies composed of particles that interact via fields, but rather of fermionic fields (spin-1/2 protons, quarks, electrons, etc) and bosonic fields whose interactions are mathematically described by QFT. Even the distinction between fermionic and bosonic fields isn't fundamental because supersymmetry allows for the interconversion of fermions and bosons. This conjectural symmetry is hidden from us in familiar low-energy regimes; but physicists hope experimentally to demonstrate its existence - and thereby extend the Standard Model - with their multibillion-dollar accelerator at CERN.
So where does this leave us? On the one hand, "materialistic" physicalism can't explain consciousness, or phenomenal binding, or the causal capacity of our bound conscious minds to talk about their own existence. On the other, claims that consciousness is the unified field (commonly associated with Maharishi's "Unified Field-Based Approach to the Creation of World Peace" and the like) seem scientifically untestable as well as utterly implausible.
So do a few thousand more years of philosophising lie ahead?
Quite possibly. However, this impasse is one reason why I focus on the phenomenal binding problem. New Agey-sounding claims like "consciousness is the unified field" aren't amenable to falsification. By contrast, Strawsonian physicalism (i.e. consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical) is a falsifiable conjecture. If we can experimentally discover even a single element of our conscious experience that is unrepresented in the mathematical formalism of physics, then monistic physicalism is false. And the sky falls in on science.
As it happens, Strawsonian physicalism does allow phenomenal binding. Indeed (though this point isn't generally recognised), unless we propose to modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, Strawsonian physicalism necessitates phenomenal binding. Recall how, unlike the classical fields of Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, fields in QFT exist in quantum superpositions of states. If Strawsonian physicalism and unmodified QFT is true, then individual neuronal superpositions must be conscious states of mind. If they are insentient, then Strawsonian physicalism is false.
The problem here is that the time-scales seem all wrong (femtoseconds not milliseconds!) and the conjectured phenomenally bound states of mind are hopelessly psychotic. Intuitively, the mind-brain is just too hot: phase coherence is scrambled too fast. Recall how standard connectionist neuroscience and temporally coarse-grained neuroscanning suggest that the synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors corresponds to the subject's experience of bound perceptual objects. As neuroscanning improves, technology may even allow remote "reading off" perceptual objects in a subject's world-simulation. (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/brain-decoding-reading-minds-1.13989) However, on the face of it, mere synchronous firing of distributed membrane-bound neuronal “mind-dust” is far removed from the individual sub-femtosecond superpositions of neurons required by (unmodified, unsupplemented) QFT. Synchrony is not superposition. Our minds are phenomenally bound; the 86-billion-odd decohered neurons of the CNS are effectively discrete. Therefore (as David Chalmers, Phil Goff, et al. would argue), Strawsonian physicalism is false...
Well, as you know, my (cautious) bet is that molecular matter-wave interferometry will decipher a perfect isomorphism between the phenomenology of mind and the formalism of QFT. The only practical experimental way to falsify the conjecture will involve using “trained up” in vitro neuronal networks rather than live subjects. But in vitro demonstration of such a perfect match should suffice.
And what would Sir Karl say? Well, of course he'd be the first to point out that surviving even the most demanding experimental test, and corroborating even the most wildly counter-intuitive prediction, is no guarantee of truth. But I suspect he'd be pleased that philosophers were taking his methodology of science to heart.
* * *
Can science transcend the empirical method?
("A Fight for the Soul of Science")
* * *
Dave, as you say, some form of "emergence" is the most intuitively plausible answer. The problem is that such emergence can't explain consciousness, or phenomenal binding, or the causal capacity of our bound conscious minds to talk about their own existence.
By contrast, I was conjecturing that the formalism of physics exhaustively describes the properties of consciousness – its textures, their binding, their causal efficacy, and their interdependencies. This conjecture doesn't work if (1) Strawsonian physicalism, i.e. the “fire” in the field-theoretic equations is experiential, is false; OR (2) the neurons of the CNS are discrete, decohered, effectively classical objects rather than environment-tracking neuronal superpositions [“Schrödinger's cat states”].
Incredible? Fortunately, the conjunction of Strawsonian physicalism and the hypothetical non-classicality of phenomenal binding leads to novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions. There is no need you or anyone else to take such a conjecture seriously unless the wildly counterintuitive interferometric predictions are borne out by experiment. Thus (almost) any scientifically literate person who understands the nature of decoherence will strongly predict a negative outcome, albeit for two very different reasons, i.e. whether they do or don't accept the unitary dynamics of QM.
Of course, if your bold new theory of consciousness also predicts the existence of a breeding colony of Loch Ness monsters, I'm not obliged to rush off to Scotland to trawl the loch. But show me Nessie and I'll swallow the rest of your crazy theory hook, line and sinker.
* * *
If [non-Strawsonian] physicalism is true, then there shouldn't be a first-person perspective at all; it shouldn't even be "all dark inside". Although radical eliminativism is easy to mock, Daniel Dennett at least faces up to the challenge, i.e. materialism is true, then consciousness is impossible - and bites the bullet. Unfortunately, he bites the wrong bullet.
* * *
("Panpsychism and Causation: A New Argument and a Solution to the Combination Problem by Hedda Hassel Morch )
Lawrence, thanks. A great find. Lots of insights. So am I convinced? The author writes...
"On the account I have offered, macroscopic objects like brains have a single macro-experience which supplants the individual micro-experiences that belonged to the parts of the brain before combination."
I agree. One wakes up from a dreamless sleep. But we also want to explain why macroscopic objects like the USA don't ever have a single macro-experience which supplants the individual micro-experiences that belonged to the skull-bound minds of the USA before combination. Why and how are membrane-bound neurons/pixels of micro-experience different? The author is explicit about treating neurons as discrete, decohered classical objects, even though he's arguing for the irreducibility of macro-experience. How does this macro-experience come about when one wakes up? In short, why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies? I'm not persuaded classical physics has the answer.
* * *
Peter [Unger], I'm still mystified by the "empty". If, for example, Galen Strawson is correct ("Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism") then some contemporary analytic philosophers know more about the nature of the physical world than scientists like Stephen Hawking or Ed Witten. Strawsonian physicalism may be true or false: either way, surely it's a substantive empirical claim? Or to use a paper of David's I often cite (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf), both Strawsonian and non-Strawsonian physicalists must (somehow!) explain why we aren't "micro-experiential zombies", to borrow Phil Goff's term. If neither classical nor quantum physics can explain phenomenal binding, then the consequences for natural science are momentous. Unfortunately, some exceedingly smart scientists simply don't "get" the problem of explaining why we're not just patterns of Jamesian mind-dust. (cf. Max Tegmark on why "there is no binding problem" 4.4.3:
[Is David's [Chalmers] FB wall available for promotional purposes? Excellent! Prompted by his paper, here's my candidate for the new Michelson-Morley: https://www.physicalism.com/#6 - if any experimentalist will deign to accept a merely philosophical challenge.]
* * *
Peter, yes, there are certainly varieties of panpsychism that are “hopelessly vague”. Some come close to a pre-scientific animism. But not non-materialist physicalism. However implausible, the conjecture that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical – i.e. the elusive “fire” in the equations – inherits the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics in all its rigorous technicality. As I understand it, David in the paper cited does seriously consider non-materialist physicalism. Of his two reasons for discounting its prospects, the “argument from microphysical simplicity” is IMO not conclusive if we assume a field-theoretic ontology, but the “argument from structural mismatch” is - on the face of it - decisive. Even if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then classical neuroscience cannot explain phenomenal binding. Of the remaining physicalist options for solving the mystery, there is no evidence (contra Penrose et al.) that the unitary dynamics of QFT breaks down in the mind-brain; and - the desperate last gasp of monistic physicalism? - neuronal superpositions of distributed phenomenal feature-processors could only be insanely short-lived. This is the only loophole I can think of by which monistic physicalism could be saved. I wish David's “The Combination Problem for Panpsychism” had a less unassuming title.
Anyhow, I hadn't intended, over-ambitiously, to dispatch the mind-body problem in a paragraph, but rather to illustrate how a minority of contemporary analytic philosophers are tackling substantive empirical questions – neither “concretely empty” nor “analytically empty” – with momentous implications for our scientific understanding of the world.
[Apologies for focusing on the critical: IMO, “Empty Ideas” should be read by anyone contemplating a career in philosophy - and practising analytic philosophers.]
* * *
One is always alone", said T.S. Eliot. Escaping solitary confinement and skull-bound ignorance won't be easy:
* * *
Can we build an advanced civilisation where reality conspires to help you?
("Why Do Some People Believe In Conspiracy Theories")
[on fish sentience]
Human trials of angiopoietin-1 (Ang-1) over-expression should be interesting:
("Single gene controls fish brain size, intelligence")
("Fish do not feel pain and its implications for phenomenal consciousness")
If the author of a treatise on how blacks don't feel pain as "we" do claims no conflict of interest while omitting to mention he owns slaves, then his work should still be treated on its own merits. We may still anticipate that it's junk science. Likewise the author of a treatise on fish insentience who claims to have "no conflict of interest" but eats them. Alas a convergence of genetic, neuroscientific, behavioural and pharmacological confirms that fish and other vertebrates feel pain. Conversely, fish and other vertebrates feel pleasure too, as e.g. intracranial self-stimulation studies attest. Beware neocortical chauvinism.
("The Carnivore's Dilemma")
("Study: Fish feel pain just like mammals, can recognize other individuals Australian researcher argues that fish should be given animal rights like other vertebrates.")
[on moral enhancement]
If we are utilitarians, the challenge is that any drug or gene therapy that enhances stereotypically "moral" and empathetic behaviour is likely to diminish the systematising impulse that helps make us utilitarians and (ideally) effective altruists in the first place. Compare the feedback inhibition between testosterone and oxytocin in the CNS. I guess interventions that promote the ability to switch cognitive style as appropriate would be useful. But testing such interventions - and trying to weigh their long-term personal and societal ramifications - is a monumental challenge. IMO, it's easier to see how we can phase out the biology of suffering than promote true moral enhancement.
[on artificial consciousness]
The first synthetic phenomenal minds may be created in vitro rather than in silico. But I fear their artificial consciousness will be psychotic...
("A patient's budding cortex -- in a dish? Networking neurons thrive in 3-D human 'organoid')
This needs regulating until we understand the ramifications of what we're doing.
If we start creating lots of such of such artificial minds, then the philosophically-minded may apply the principle of mediocrity and start to wonder if they are most likely one of them. Especially if one's consciousness seems bizarre...
* * *
Matt, consider how Cartesians had no compunction about vivisecting dogs (etc) - because they disbelieved nonhuman animals had phenomenal minds. The dog's howls of agony were merely mechanical distress-vocalisations. You believe (I trust) that dogs before veterinary surgery - and people before operations - should be given anaesthesia as well as a muscle paralysing agent. Do you believe that Alpha Dog (or your digital software) need anaesthetics on occasion too?
Tests for consciousness? Chris, IMO not behavioural tests (which can often be faked) but physical interferometry (which can't) can be used to discriminate zombies from non-zombies.
Rodney, I'd guess that what are being created in vitro are psychotic states akin to dreams but not nightmares. Creating artificial limbic systems is more likely to lead to an ethical disaster. I do of course agree with you about Darwinian life. Worrying about artificial nerve nets can seem absurd when factory farms and slaughterhouses are still expanding I obscenely worldwide.
Vitamin B for lucid dreaming?
("Can vitamin B supercharge your dreams?")
* * *
Why do Aryans feel pain?
("Why do humans feel pain?")
Evolutionary explanations can give the illusion of understanding. But they don't explain why biological organisms aren't p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies. And do humans suffer really worse than nonhumans? Just as dogs evolved a more highly developed sense of smell, have humans evolved a more highly developed capacity to suffer? Not to my knowledge. For sure, generative syntax allows humans to be distressed by a vastly greater range of intentional objects. But there's no neurological evidence that the genus Homo has hypertrophied pain circuitry compared to our vertebrate cousins.
* * *
Are we deluded?
("Externalist and the Structuralist Responses To Skepticism")
Can biotechnology succeed where philosophy has failed in defeating radical scepticism? People born with a complete absence of the corpus callosum don't normally express epistemological worries about The Problem Of Other Cerebral Hemispheres or fret about whether semantic externalism about the other hemisphere is viable (“meaning ain't in the hemisphere”?) But in future, whether by growing artificial corpora callosa or constructing reversible thalamic bridges
(as the Hogan sisters enjoy already http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html)
formerly skull-bound subjects should be able literally to “mind meld”.
True, mind-melding doesn’t defeat radical scepticism altogether. Thus today you might in theory worry whether your other cerebral hemisphere is a creation of the Matrix, or our Simulators (or perhaps of the CIA, etc). But here we come to the nature of mechanism that underpins local and global phenomenal binding. If naturalistic dualism is true, then all sorts of sceptical possibilities open up that aren’t an option if phenomenal binding discloses the existence of neuronal superpositions. IMO we shouldn’t give up on physicalism yet...
As a negative utilitarian, my mood was somewhat darkened (but no more) for a few days (but no more) by the news that the number of different string vacua ("universes") has recently been elevated from 10500 to 10272,000 (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1511.03209v1.pdf). But perhaps the starkest example of scope-insensitivity we can imagine would be our response to the news that the size of the multiverse were physically infinite - which mercifully probably isn't the case.
Eugenic human cloning with CRISPR-based genome-editing, educational "hothousing" and AI-augmentation could theoretically be used to generate full-spectrum, recursively self-improving biological superintelligence. What could go wrong? Lots! Not least, "IQ tests" foster a desperately improverished, autistic and drug-naive conception of (super)intelligence.
("China plans to clone everything from beef cattle to the family dog in this giant factory")
What is the genetically optimum level of intelligence?
("Scientists identify genes linked to intelligence")
[on value realism]
("The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics")
Michael, yes, that's the moral nihilist position. If one's hand is in the fire, one withdraws it, but a logician might say that one cannot derive an "ought" from an "is": there is no compelling obligation to take one's hand out of the flame. But for reasons that science simply doesn't understand, the first-person experience of agony exists. Again for reasons science doesn't understand, a normative aspect to the experience of agony is built into the nature of the experience itself, just as a normative aspect is built into all experiences on the pleasure-pain axis.
So what, says the sceptic. Is it even intelligible to speak of generalising the obligation to withdraw one's hand from the fire, so to speak, to a global and perhaps even cosmological scale? After all, I can't feel your agony, or the agony of a mouse on the other side of the world.
In essence I'd argue that our epistemological limitations as skull-bound humans shouldn't be treated as constraining what we ought to do. If a God-like superintelligence, in command of all the first-person and third-person facts, would withdraw its hand from the fire, so to speak, then this is what intelligent humans should do too. Today, constrained only by his or her representational limitations, a mirror-touch synaesthete cannot wantonly harm others, or allow others to come to harm. Doing such a thing would be akin to harming oneself. What would a superintelligent generalisation of a mirror-touch synaesthete do?
* * *
If there is any such thing as moral progress, this question is worth asking:
("Once and future sins. When our descendants look back at our society, what will they condemn as our greatest moral failing?")
[on free speech]
("Why depicting Prophet Muhammad angers many Muslims")
René, I'm torn. On the one hand, free speech needs to be defended vigorously. On the other hand, IMO we should all aim for greater tact, sensitivity and diplomacy - ideally with a superhuman capacity for perspective-taking. Imagine the most hurtful and offensive thing anyone could say about you, your values, your loved ones - and whatever you hold dear. How vigorously you would defend anyone's right to say such things is one gauge of your commitment to free speech. Not easy...
* * *
Alas small children enjoy teasing each other, sometimes cruelly. The more visibly upset the victim, the better - up to the point the victim snaps, “loses it”, and whacks his tormentor over the head. The consequences when adults do the same can be more serious. Of course, both the violent child - and his adult counterpart - need to be sanctioned. The challenge is how best to reduce the likelihood of such incidents in future while safeguarding freedom of expression. (cf. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/10/arts/an-attack-chills-satirists-and-prompts-debate.html)
* * *
Jera, I'm torn. Imagine if, say, some Jewish radicals had killed the editor of Der Stürmer. Deplorable, no doubt; but most of us wouldn't adopt the slogan of "I am Julius" and urge re-publication of its most scurrilous anti-Semitic cartoons to show our support for freedom of speech.....yes, words can harm a social primate as badly as sticks and stones. The wounds can sometimes take longer to heal too. In the case of Islam, the issues where IMO secular rationalists should risk giving offence to many Muslims aren't (to us) silly or trivial matters like depictions of Mohammed but evils like FGM.
The current Pope normally sounds less benighted than some of his predecessors. But his recent comments make him sound more like, well, a typical Latin male than the Vicar of Christ:
* * *
There is the ethical question (Should one offend?) and the prudential question (Is it practically wise to offend?) - though they overlap. Yes, the long-term solution to Islamic extremism is to promote tolerant, secular rationalism. But in the meantime, there are millions of people for whom depictions of their Prophet are as offensive as say, a scandal-sheet dedicated to defaming your mother. Most of the offended will just silently seethe. But a minority have access to bombs, bullets and - sooner-or-later - WMD. Testing their capacity for self-restraint is probably unwise.
... Where we need to be cautious is passing from words and actions that regrettably but unavoidably give offence to the role of provocateur. If you know someone well enough, then there are "mere" words that can cause almost any of us to snap - including folk who normally wouldn't say boo to a goose.
Can violence best be prevented by avoiding the term "pork" or by not killing pigs? The moral blindspots of others tend to be more obvious than our own.
("Oxford University warns authors not to write about bacon, pork to avoid offending Muslims")
Michael, after learning of the existence of your blind spot, you can verify its existence even though you can't directly see it. (cf. http://io9.com/5804116/why-every-human-has-a-blind-spot---and-how-to-find-yours). Most of us ignore its existence and carry on as before. However, my point was about the scope of our opposition to violence against other sentient beings rather than optics.
Kevin, the lawful right to free speech, including the right to say things that some people will find exceedingly offensive, should be vigorously upheld. But a distinction needs to be drawn. Affirming the lawful right of anyone to be extremely offensive about you, your loved ones, or your deepest values doesn't mean that they should be so offensive, let alone that provocateurs should needle you in a way calculated to cause you maximum distress. In short - as a rule of thumb - we should try to treat each other with more respect.
* * *
Pascal's wager has just been solved!
("Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven")
("Religion’s Dirty Dozen—12 Really Bad Religious Ideas That Have Made the World Worse")
* * *
Gay devil-worshippers' hairstyles:
("'Be yourself' is about the worst advice you can give some people.")
("Hiding your true colors may make you feel morally tainted")
[on female governance and existential & global catastrophic risk]
("Women-only leadership. Would it prevent war?")
If women were responsible for the great majority of the world's plane and automobile accidents, I'd reluctantly favour a crude, discriminatory and sexist ban on women drivers. In reality, men's slightly superior visuo-spatial skills are roughly cancelled out by the greater male propensity for risk-taking. With global and existential catastrophic risk, the stakes are vastly higher. So does it make sense to elect a male-dominated political elite when evolution "designed" male humans (and male chimpanzees) to be predisposed to combine together to wage territorial wars of aggression?
High testosterone function is associated with a sense of optimism and vitality:
("Most men with borderline testosterone levels may have depression")
Alas testosterone also functionally antagonises oxytocin the brain.
Why are we ever dry-eyed?
("Why do humans cry?")
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."
My own dark suspicion is that depression is ultimately a disorder of opioid function. If so, the prospects of effective pharmacotherapy for hundreds of millions of sufferers world-wide are bleak:
("The Most Popular Antidepressants Are Based On A Theory We Know Is Wrong")
* * *
Serotonin deficits and an excess of black bile? Clinical psychophamacology is still in a dismal state.
("Serotonin and Depression")
* * *
The stars are the street lights of eternity" ?
But perhaps buy a light box.
("Could your 'Holiday blues' be seasonal affective disorder?")
* * *
What percentage of depressives could benefit from an anti-inflammatory?
Alas the story is not straightforward...
Pain-killer or pleasure-killer? Psychoactive paracetamol (acetaminophen):
("Paracetamol kills feelings of pleasure as well as pain")
The anti-inflammatory effects of acetaminophen / paracetamol are quite weak compared to, say, aspirin. I don't know if any comparative trial - well-controlled or otherwise - has ever been done investigating their effects on anhedonia.
Some depressives who aren't in physical pain still experience so-called "leaden paralysis" of the limbs. By contrast, taking MDMA ("Ecstasy"), for example, acutely induces an extraordinary sense of bodily well-being. Everyday posthuman health should entail innately feeling not just psychologically "better than well", but physically better than well – though given one doesn’t have direct perceptual access to one’s extra-cranial body, the former super-wellness really subsumes the latter.
I take one ibuprofen in the morning for its (weakly) mood-elevating and possible neuroprotective effect but no more.
("Potential neuroprotective effect of ibuprofen, insights from the mice model of Parkinson's disease")
My personal regimen?
Amineptine c. 200mg, selegiline 2 x 5mg, resveratrol 2 x 250mg, turmeric, blueberry, green tea extract, flaxseed oil, soya protein isolate, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), iscreatine, l-carnosine, optimised folate, LEF "Life-Extension" mix, 200mg ibuprofen; and a selection of various Linwoods products added to my coffee black coffee and sugar-free Red Bull.
This cocktail would not suit everyone.
Alas the dopaminergics in my regimen don't bring out one's inner Buddha Nature; but they promote survival in a Darwinian world.
Vito, perhaps I should add the equivalent of a red flag: do not emulate! However, recall that coffee is a complex chemical cocktail containing everything from MAO inhibitors
to opioid agonists
Why not Adderall? Well, amphetamines can be rewarding in the short term; but in the medium-to-long term they can make melancholic depression worse. As it happens, the selegiline in my regimen does have active methamphetamine and amphetamine metabolites; but these trace metabolites aren't usually problematic.
Clement, yes, the risk of exuberant Kurzweilian-level supplementation is that some unsuspected interaction or idiosyncratic response leads to disaster. Optimised diet, exercise and sleep discipline are wiser, IMO, until we understand more. Most of my regimen falls in the nutritional/nutraceutical end of the psychoactive spectrum. Of course, I do take selegiline and amineptine. But they are "old" drugs unlikely to bring surprises.
Joshua, I haven't had my genome sequenced. Despite my performance on 'Hitman Sniper', I'd be surprised if I have the warrior gene COMT variant. Replicating the effects the COMT Val(158)Met genotype would be nice; but I haven't yet explored possible interventions.
Many years ago, in a shared house at college, I knew a guy fond of amphetamines. If he took them at home, the result was a non-stop two-hour assault on the Dickensian squalor of the communal kitchen. Like many dopaminergics, amphetamines can induce not just manic euphoria but also OCD-like behaviour - which in this case we weren't overzealous to discourage. Perhaps compare
("What supplements does Aubrey de Grey take to stay young, if any?")
with Rat Kurzweil's
-though Aubrey has been conducting extensive unpublished research with ethyl alcohol.
Are antidepressants akin to "Soma"? If only, John. If today's "antidepressants" made users consistently feel "better than well", then we could recommend them. In fairness to Big Pharma, designing an ideal pleasure drug won't be easy. My own suspicion is that low mood can't be banished in many people without targeting the opioid system - a medical, legal and socio-political nightmare scenario.
What would a true "ideal pleasure drug" be like? And what would be ideal reward circuitry for the brain? Of course, for now this is just science fiction. But it's good to know what tomorrow's pharmacologists and gene therapists should be aiming for.
Smart pills or smart nutrition? Can catechins, curcumin and sulforaphane promote a healthy brain?
("Is nutrition the future of brain health?")
To eat or not to eat...?
("The Effects of Calorie Restriction in Depression and Potential Mechanisms")
* * *
Jera, my worry is that opiophobia - political, medico-legal and popular - will deter research and licensing of effective treatment options if the opioid theory of (at least one sub-type of) depression were to turn out to be correct. [A Google search on "opioid theory of depression" and "opiate theory of depression" yields no scholarly results - despite the intimate involvement of the mu opioid receptors of our twin hedonic hotspots in hedonic tone.] Will selective kappa antagonists (recall kappa is the "nasty" opioid receptor) prove clinically effective on their own? To what extent is the efficacy of the "French" antidepressant tianeptine dependent on its recently discovered mu and delta agonist properties? When can the problem of tolerance finally be overcome? I wish I knew.
Rob, yes, the conjecture that most cases of "treatment-resistant" depression involve a dysfunctional opioid system should of course be distinguished from the claim that severely depressed people failed by existing treatments should take opioids. It's very much a last resort until treatment options improve.
* * *
David, thank you.
1) selegiline on rising, the second around noon. I'm sensitive to its active trace metabolites. Taking a tab in the evening gives me violent dopaminergic dreams.
I take amineptine in the evening; but most users might do best to take it in the morning instead to avoid insomnia.
2) I haven't seriously experimented for some time now. The kappa antagonist JDTic didn't deliver the sustained improvement in hedonic tone I'm looking for. I'd love to find an agent that (sustainably!) makes me leap out of bed in the morning feeling good to be alive. Alas my brain has always been extremely pleasure-resistant.
To stress again: my regimen would not suit everybody; and it hasn't turned me into a psychological superman - just delivered a state of mind just about suitable for coping in a Darwinian world.
Drugs, genes or electrodes? What the best way to engineer a happy world?
("Targeting depression with deep brain stimulation")
Thanks Lysander. Where are the psychiatric wonderdrugs? Well over half a century has passed between the introduction of the tricyclic antidepressant imipramine. No demonstrably more effective antidepressant has since been licensed since. What's changed since I wrote the Good Drug Guide? Well, our understanding of tianeptine was transformed by Gassaway et al.'s paper in Nature (cf. http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v4/n7/full/tp201430a.html) revealing that tianeptine is a μ-opioid receptor agonist and also a full δ-opioid receptor agonist. Also, if I were to write the Guide now, I'd be more sparing with the links. Just because a published study is randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind, cross-over (yadda, yadda) doesn't mean it's not junk. Publication-bias [and worse] is endemic to the literature. But the real problem is the lack of exciting new drugs to write about...
The immune system, mood and seasonal health:
("Seasonal immunity: Activity of thousands of genes differs from winter to summer")
Well-controlled clinical trials are the bedrock of psychiatric medicine. Or are a majority of published studies little better than junk?
("Psychiatric drugs do more harm than good, says expert")
The use of dangerous and dementing anti-psychotics to control the elderly deserves to be all but banned. But the wanton over-prescription of dopamine-blocking anti-psychotics is a separate issue from the intelligent prescription of antidepressants.
Natural methods have pitfalls too:
("Panic, depression and stress: The case against meditation")
Recall the US doctor who put all his patients on Prozac soon after the drug was licensed. SSRIs really do make a small percentage of people feel "better than well" - and give a large minority of anxious depressives symptom relief beyond a mere placebo. What's sorely lacking is any kind of formal training in responsible self-experimentation - a true "therapeutic alliance" between doctor and patient.
[on existential risk]
Darwinian life: conservation, extinction, transformation?
("Plan of Action to Prevent Human Extinction Risks")
Does studying existential risk increase or mitigate it?
It's easy to give a intuitive snap answer to the question; but harder to offer even a semi-rigorous reply.
Thus what percentage of the million or so people who take their own lives each year would take the world down with them if they had the knowledge to do so? Likewise, antinatalists, Benatarians ("better never to have been"), negative utilitarians, religious millennialists...this list could be extended. Even a "safe" sounding ethic like classical utilitarianism may have the disguised implication that intelligent agents ought to launch a utilitronium shockwave and obliterate human civilisation in the process.
Speaking as a negative utilitarian, IMO anyone who cares about reducing suffering would do better to explore genetically re-engineering organic life, not plotting its extinction: high-tech Jainism, so to speak.
However, other folk with different background assumptions may draw different conclusions. Hence the question.
* * *
Any intelligent cognitive agent must be able to investigate the properties of the world - the intrinsic properties, the relational properties, and their interrelationships. Such a challenge is beyond a digital zombie. Such an information processing system can’t understand what intelligent sentient agents are investigating. Thus so called digital (super-) intelligence is an imposter - the very term is an anthropomorphic projection on our part. True to form, humans have taken our dominant technology – at present the classical digital computer - and used that technology as our root metaphor of life, phenomenal mind and the universe. But digital zombie (super)intelligence is a misnomer. At most, we’re at risk from unusually versatile type of polymorphic malware.
[on Christianity and the Hedonistic Imperative]
Is the hedonistic imperative ethical/moral to Christians?
Why would a benevolent God create a world with so much suffering? The honest answer is we don't know. The author of HI leans to secular rationalism. But other transhumanists are religious (cf. The Mormon Transhumanist Association: http://transfigurism.org/). And coincidentally or otherwise, the co-founder of World Transhumanist Association (H+), Nick Bostrom, originated the Simulation Argument (cf. http://www.simulation-argument.com/) - sometimes invoked for why scientific rationalists should contemplate the existence of a Creator. For what it's worth, the only reason I can think of why a benevolent Creator would design a world with so much suffering is in order to mitigate or prevent some even greater evil whose nature escapes us.
Theodicy aside, it's worth recalling an earlier controversy. The nineteenth century introduction of pain-free surgery - and the use of anaesthesia and painkillers in childbirth - once provoked fierce debate amongst religious believers. Was agony bravely borne spiritually uplifting? Cardinal Berlusconi in Milan, for example, delivered a much-cited sermon condemning advocates of painless surgery for seeking to abolish "one of the Almighty's most merciful provisions". On the other hand, the Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, claimed that opponents of anaesthesia were "small theologians" whose opinions should be discounted. For more background, perhaps see: Utopian surgery? The case against anaesthesia in surgery, dentistry and childbirth.
Yet what about using the tools of molecular biology to banish "psychological" pain? If tomorrow's designer drugs, or the CRISPR revolution in biotechnology, can deliver life based on gradients of intelligent bliss, how should believers respond? My normal reply to Christian critics is that if mere mortals can envisage a world without misery (“May all that hath life be delivered from suffering” - Gautama Buddha), then it's hard to see how God could be more stunted in either the range or the depth of His compassion. Rather than fearing divine disapproval, we should aim to ensure the momentous transition is carried out wisely, prudently and intelligently so that even the humblest of creatures can benefit. After all, what intuitively sound the “craziest” aspects of HI, for example a non-predatory future where sentient beings don't hurt, harm and kill each other, have Biblical precedent. Recall how Isaiah prophesies a future where obligate carnivores will lie down beside herbivores. To be sure, in vitro meat, “reprogramming” predators and cross-species immunocontraception aren't mentioned explicitly in the Bible. But a peaceful world where the lion and the wolf lie down with the lamb calls for some genetic tweaking, to say the least.
Naturally, not all religious believers agree with using biotechnology to abolish suffering, let alone the transhumanist vision of engineering life governed by gradients of superhuman bliss. I'd simply urge critics to recall the vital ethical difference between declining to use such technologies oneself - whether anaesthetics, painkillers, designer drugs or gene therapies - and urging their prohibition to others. Later this century and beyond, the biology of suffering is likely to become optional. I know of no good theological or secular reason why sentient beings should be forced to suffer against their will indefinitely.
* * *
Which religions, ethics and ideologies can scientifically-minded transhumanists engage with - and which are simply beyond the pale? Neither the Abrahamic religions nor the religions of the Indian sub-continent strike me as wholly inconsistent with a transhumanist agenda. As transhumanist ideas hit the political mainstream, perhaps it will be good to keep channels of communication open. How can the accusation of seeking "heaven on earth" (cf. http://www.end-times-bible-prophecy.com/transhumanism.html) best be deflected?
* * *
Mark, yes, several secular rationalist friends have expressed the view that one shouldn't "waste" time intellectually with religious believers. And it's true that banging heads with a Jehovah's Witness probably isn't an afternoon well spent. But there is no Biblical prohibition on using biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering. Indeed, it's hard to see how an infinitely compassionate and merciful God would wish us to do otherwise.
The breadth and depth of God's mercy and compassion presumably surpass anyone here. How would such a hypothetical being wish us to use the tools of biotechnology?
Sean, Jera, yes, it would be a shame if whether or not to use biotech to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering become tied to any one secular or religious metaphysic, or to any particular meta-ethical position, or indeed to any one conception of the nature of conscious mind. The latter claim in particular might seem non-obvious. But if we decide to get rid of the molecular signature of experience below "hedonic zero", then on a wide range of mind-brain theories, suffering of any kind becomes physically impossible.
Of course, flabby consensus-building is a lot less intellectually satisfying that incisive philosophical argument or serious scientific investigation. But if abolitionist bioethics is ever to become practical politics, then messy compromises will be essential. I'm rather fond of the idea of just borrowing of World Health Organisation definition of health: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being".
Arguing against a program of good health for all is quite a bold stance even for a bioconservative.
* * *
David, I've long struggled to think of a strong "brand" that captures the core ethic / program: "The Hedonistic Imperative", "The Abolitionist Project", "The Post-Darwinian Transition", "Paradise Engineering", "High-Tech Jainism"...all have strengths and weaknesses.
[on "wanting" versus "liking"]
Dopaminergic "wanting" versus mu-opioidergic "liking". How can the reward circuitry of sentient beings be ethically re-engineered?
("The science of craving")
Of all the great religions, Buddhism is most associated with the equation of suffering and desire. Yet empirically speaking, happy people tend to have the most desires whereas chronic depressives typically have few.
[on quantum mechanics]
How large is your measure? Lev Vaidman combines Everett with the two-state vector approach: what we call the future causally explains our existence as much as the past.
"Science is organised common sense", said googols of Thomas Huxleys.
"What's it like working in the wrong dimension?"
How well can we predict the past...
("Prediction and Retrodiction for a Continuously Monitored Superconducting Qubit")
Stephen Hawking has said he regards Everett as "trivially true" - an extraordinary claim for someone who also describes himself as a "positivist". But interference effects from Everett branches that have decohered ("split") never totally disappear.
* * *
Is physics really about me?
Is Quantum Bayesianism a new interpretation of quantum theory? Or just a version of David Mermin's "Shut up and calculate"? For example, how does the quantum Bayesian explain the double-split experiment?
* * *
("Could classical theory be just as weird as quantum theory?")
("Researchers develop the first-ever quantum device that detects and corrects its own errors")
Do you always exist?
Both Strawsonian and non-Strawsonian physicalists can endorse Everett. But non-Strawsonian physicalists face the Hard Problem of consciousness. Everettian QM is sometimes held to be empirically unfalsifiable; but not so. This is why physicists go to such extraordinary pains to look for any departure from the Schrödinger dynamics. The slightest departure from unitarity and Everett fails.
Or for a serious treatment:
"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." (Pascal)
("Confronting the multiverse")
* * *
Most Everettians favour MWI because of (rather than despite) Ockham's razor: it's more parsimonious with principles. Also, an Everettian might argue there is a single multiverse with an intuitively huge and indeterminate but finite number of quasi-classical "branches". According to Everett, reality consists of a single gigantic superposition - presumably a superposition of all possible space-time geometries. "Branching" within the universal wavefunction occurs continually and essentially everywhere, but precisely when a distinct "branch" has been created is not a well-defined question because interference effects from quasi-classical Everett branches that have decohered ("split") never wholly disappear. Extremely rarely, branches may even recohere ("fuse"). So what explains the comparative robustness of quasi-classical Everett branches? For a nice account of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics, perhaps see Wojciech Zurek's "Quantum Darwinism":
But I'm still not convinced any of us really knows what's going on.
* * *
Solipsism or wavefunction realism? Realism is more promising IMO....
("proving that reality does not exist until it is measured")
Robert, that's a very pertinent question for anyone sceptical of "strong" emergence theories of consciousness. Taking seriously instead the prospect of macroscopic or even megascopic consciousness isn't the same as positing a God-like cosmic super-being. Thus if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical and wavefunction monism is true, then e.g. SQUIDS and superfluid helium are presumably a single "psychon", in some sense. But they aren't God-like, intelligent, or even differentiated in whatever (hypothetical) simple unitary phenomenal property they possess.
Naturally, this idea sounds bizarre. The temptation to assume that consciousness somehow emerges only during the evolutionary history of life is strong. Even to state the implications of the alternative sounds surreal.
* * *
Robert, apologies, I didn't add a link to the ANU version of Wheeler's delayed-choice experiment above because I agreed with the philosophical interpretation of the experimenters - an interpretation which, if taken literally, spirals into an uninteresting solipsism. There is an immense difference between being:
(1) a Copenhagen-style positivist who believes "that reality does not exist until it is measured." ["It proves that measurement is everything. At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it," said Associate Professor Andrew Truscott]
(2) a wavefunction realist (more strictly, a Everettian wavefunction monist) who also conjectures that that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Realism about the superposition principle doesn't make one an anti-realist about the mind-independent world. The multiverse of Everettian QM does not depend on one's mind - whether or not one entertains an idiosyncratic constitutive panpsychist view of the intrinsic nature of the physical.
* * *
Craig, well, I've currently no plans to blow out my brains in a “quantum immortality” experiment. After all, the same line of reasoning dictates one would never fall asleep at night. That said, I think of us as a wave function in configuration space. In a nutshell: Everett, Vaidman and Wojciech Zurek.
Lev Vaidman combines Everett with the two-state vector approach: what we call the future causally explains our existence as much as the past:
* * *
What the author calls "4.4 The Orthodox Statistical Interpretation" found no support in a recent poll:
Accepting instead only the "bare formalism" of QM without observables, measurement or probability makes quantum physics intelligible; but it's hard to believe and stay sane:
* * *
For an example of philosophically sophisticated science - or scientifically sophisticated philosophy - see Alyssa Ney's defence of wave function realism, forthcoming in Synthese:
OK, as a wave function monist, I'm biased; but I'm (almost) tempted to start reading philosophy journals again.
Peter, I don't really understand Reality. That said, if a zero ontology offers the right explanation-space for an answer, then Max Tegmark ("Does The Universe In Fact Contain Almost No Information": http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9603008v1.pdf) can't be correct. Information can neither be created nor destroyed. The information content of the world is zero. Perhaps see Jan-Markus Schwindt on "Nirvana factorization” versus “Samsara factorization" and on why the state vector of QM doesn't contain any information.
(cf. "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation"
See too Yasunori Nomura's "The Static Quantum Multiverse":
Consciousness? IMO, consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical; but understanding how its values cancel to zero is a deep problem - and not amenable to any obvious experimental test.
* * *
Geoff, For a rather deeper answer, perhaps see:
More speculatively, (1) why anything exists at all, (2) the interpretation of quantum mechanics, and (3) how bound phenomenal minds like ours are possible would normally be reckoned three distinct questions. I reckon they are aspects of the same question.
“So this information is there, but it’s not all physical". Or do we underestimate the dimensions of the physical?
A world without gravity? Einstein's theory of general relativity unified space and time into a single geometric entity called space-time. So no gravity, no space-time. However, most physicists believe that Einstein's theory of gravity must be reformulated as a quantum theory. For reasons unexplained, at the end of the Planck epoch, some 10-43 seconds or so after the Big Bang, the gravitational force separated from the grand unified force. This grand unified force eventually became the other three interactions.
What would the world be like if the Planck epoch had never ended? Much improved, IMO, but you're asking a negative utilitarian.
* * *
Classical physics is often said to be deterministic while quantum physics is indeterministic; but really it's the other way round. For the world is exhaustively described by the deterministic dynamics of the universal Schrödinger equation or its relativistic generalisation.
(cf. Hugh Everett's "The Theory of the Universal Wavefunction":
The decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics explains how quasi-classical Everett branches ("worlds") emerge from the deterministic unitary dynamics of QM. Perhaps see Wojciech Zurek on "Quantum Darwinism":
or Maximilian Schlosshauer's "Decoherence and the Quantum-to-Classical Transition" (2008):
Determinism and predictability are different concepts. Thus if you wanted to outwit the predictive powers of even mature posthuman superintelligence, then you could live your lives as the quantum analogue of Luke Rhinehart's "Dice Man":
* * *
Does the mathematical structure needed to formulate the unitary dynamics of quantum theory allow inference to the corresponding dimensionality, physical structure and ontology of the natural world? If so, then 11-dimensional M-theory grotesquely understates the number of dimensions of reality. For a review of Alyssa Ney and David Albert's volume "The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics" (2013), see:
However, most physicists still balk at what wavefunction monism entails.
Can we hope to be effective altruists without understanding the nature of reality?
("The Role Of Philosophy In Physics")
"The mathematical formalism of the quantum theory is capable of yielding its own interpretation” (Bryce DeWitt, 1970). I'd be the last person to decry the role of philosophy in science. But what is arguably the least "philosophical", most literal-minded and realist reading of our best mathematical description of the world is also the most profound. Everettian QM isn't just empirically adequate:
Everett also yields a naturalistic explanation of such "philosophical" mysteries as anthropic fine-tuning
and maybe even why anything exists at all:
A critic might fairly respond that this is a distinctly "philosophical" opinion.
Alternatively, why do the equations of physics have such ugly solutions?
("Why is physics beautiful")
* * *
Life and phenomenally bound conscious minds are inescapably quantum. Whether Zurek really succeeds in "censor[ing] Hilbert space" I'm not sure:
Reality does not admit of degrees.
Alas an extraordinary amount of nonsense is said and written about quantum theory by scientists who ought to know better.
("Scientists say they can prove the existence of the soul")
I can understand why anyone who believes quantum mind conjectures are exhausted by Orch-OR would want to cast the whole genre to the flames.
* * *
Materialism is confounded by the existence of consciousness. Classical physics is confounded by the existence of phenomenal binding: i.e. we aren't just patterns of "mind-dust". But instead of treating QM as a universal theory, Hameroff and Penrose propose to modify the unitary dynamics with the dynamical-collapse story of Orch-OR - a conjecture for which there is (as yet) no empirical evidence. Further, even if Orch-OR were true and neuronal microtubules support quantum coherence (yes, IMO), the reason we aren't just patterns of distributed membrane-bound neuronal feature-processors would be left unexplained. If our neuronal networks (as distinct from their constituent neurons) are effectively classical, then any explanation of why we're not micro-experiential zombies remains as elusive as ever.
Hameroff and Penrose remark:
"The measurement problem (referred to above) is, in effect, the question of why we don't see such superpositions in the consciously perceived macroscopic world; we see objects and particles as material, classical things in specific locations and states."
On the contrary, in my view we never "see" anything other than neuronal superpositions. Without the superposition principle, no phenomenally-bound classical objects populating quasi-classical macroscopic worlds and obeying quasi-Newtonian laws would be apprehended at all. The content of our world-simulations may be classical; but the vehicle itself is inescapably quantum.
Deepak Chopra will never be refuted because his philosophy doesn't make any novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions. But the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory will ultimately stand or fall by experiment – as indeed will any claim that phenomenal binding consists in neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors.
* * *
Are you real?
("Being No One with Thomas Metzinger")
Help with solving the binding problem? Dave, one might hope so, but alas not. On the intuitively plausible assumption that neurons can be treated as discrete, decohered, membrane-bound classical objects, then the pack of neurons making up your CNS should at most be a micro-experiential zombie. Neither local nor global phenomenal binding should be physically possible.
Compare people with simultanagnosia or motion blindness. They are capable of various forms of local phenomenal binding. But whereas you or I can see a bunch of footballers kicking a ball around at a soccer match, someone with simultanagnosia can see only one player at a time, and someone with motion blindness cannot see the ball or the players moving. In other words, the unity of perception (for most of us) is real, even if philosophers can disagree on the reality - or otherwise - of a transcendental self. Even someone with the medically unprecedented double syndrome of simultanagnosia AND motion-blindness would still have an immense potential computational advantage over a micro-experiential zombie that couldn’t phenomenally bind anything at all.
* * *
Dave, zombie-infestation can take more than one guise. A (hypothetical!) p-zombie differs from a micro-experiential zombie. A p-zombie would supposedly be physically and behaviourally identical to you, but insentient. We’ve no reason to believe p-zombies are really possible. However, what’s mystifying is why we aren’t p-zombies given the intuitively plausible assumption that the intrinsic nature of the physical – the “fire” in the equations – is non-experiential.
The problem of why we aren’t micro-experiential zombies is different. Consider the 320 million skull–bound minds in the USA, or 86 billion membrane-bound neurons. If physicalism is true, then regardless of how the 320 million discrete skull-bound minds communicate with each other, there is no pan-continental subject of experience that “switches on” – no sunsets or symphonies, nor any bound phenomenal objects appearing in a pan-continental movie theatre. To claim otherwise would be to invoke some form of “strong” emergence. The USA is a micro-experiential zombie.
We need to understand how the central nervous system is different. As microelectrode studies tend to confirm, individual membrane-bound neurons in your CNS may support tiny fleeting “pixels” of experience. But at least when you are not in a dreamless sleep, you aren’t a micro-experiential zombie. Rather, you experience dynamic cross-modally matched experiential objects in a unitary perceptual field. Unlike the USA, your "pack of neurons" is not just a pattern of “mind dust”. The question is how such phenomenal binding of disparate and distributed feature-processors is possible.
* * *
Craig, IMO the biggest challenge may be persuading researchers to take the conjecture seriously enough to do the experiment. Anton Zeilinger – whose team detected macroscopic quantum superpositions of fullerenes – might be best equipped. Apparently someone whose PhD was on the phenomenal binding problem forwarded Zeilinger an earlier copy of the paper.
Technically, the biggest challenge won't be training up an in vitro neuronal network and identifying the relevant neuronal feature-processors
Rather, confirming or falsifying the conjecture that what we naively call classical synchrony is really quantum superposition will depend on experimentally controlling decoherence well enough to identify - or demonstrate the absence of - the non-classical interference signature. Recall that superpositions can't be accessed directly - unless, that is, you happen to instantiate them, as I'd guess.
(Toward Quantum Superposition of Living Organisms”)
Intuitively, thermally-induced decoherence in the CNS is too preposterously rapid for natural selection to have recruited neuronal superpositions. Intuitively, there has to be some other explanation of why we're not micro-experiential zombies - besides Chalmersian dualism.
Thus a critic will say, “That’s crazy!”; and I only agree. But let’s do the experiment.
(one of my favourite armchair mantras.)
* * *
What credence would you assign the possibility your intellectual and moral framework is hopelessly mistaken?
("Daniel Kahneman: ‘What would I eliminate if I had a magic wand? Overconfidence’")
The principle of mediocrity if nothing else suggests extremely high; but the possibility of being an effective agent normally depends on assuming otherwise.
[on closing slaughterhouses]
Can slaughterhouses be shut and outlawed?
("Close Down all Slaughterhouses 2015, London, UK")
Factory-farming is inherently abusive. And talk of "humane" slaughter is Orwellian. But cameras in slaughterhouses would indeed reveal what are supposedly "abuses" are actually endemic. "The Moral Case For Slaughterhouses" is so non-existent that I honestly believe a sufficiently energetic campaign could get them closed. Whereas drug-taking is about the right (potentially) to harm oneself, support for slaughterhouses is about an alleged right to harm others. Like dog-fighting, badger-baiting and other forms of animal abuse, a legal ban doesn't make the abuse go away altogether. It's still progress.
Darren, I agree the risks would need to be dispassionately weighed. In practice, slaughterhouses and factory-farms will most likely be closed only in the wake of the in vitro meat revolution. But let's suppose (contrary to my cynical views on human nature) that before any such global dietary transition, a moral revolution does come to pass. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses are shut and outlawed. Would organised crime step in to fill the breach - with underground factory-farms and slaughterhouses catering to the depraved appetites of bacon eaters? Possibly. But organised crime wouldn't find such an underground enterprise easy – and the scale of abuse would be diminished by several orders of magnitude compared to today.
Darren, I'm torn here. True, we don't want to go down the route of moral absolutism - the kind of all-or-nothing thinking that opposes regulating health-and-safety and working conditions in (human) factories because such reforms retard the abolition of capitalist exploitation, or whatever. Yet factory farms and slaughterhouses are so ethically indefensible, do we want to do anything that legitimates them rather than campaign for an outright ban? Once they are gone, I suspect our grandchildren may find it incomprehensible they were ever legal.
[on wild animals killing wild animals]
Like wild humans who kill other wild humans, a minority of wild non-human animals have hurt, harmed and killed their peaceable herbivorous cousins since time immortal. Such behaviour is natural and genetically adaptive. To imagine that life could be otherwise sounds not just utopian but ecologically illiterate – not least, inconsistent with the thermodynamics of a food chain. To quote Richard Dawkins: “It must be so.”
However, in recent years a minority of vegans have wondered about the long-term future of predation. In tomorrow's wildlife parks, should free-living non-humans continue to suffer disembowelment, asphyxiation or being eaten alive? Or should fertility-regulation via cross-species immunocontraception replace the traditional horrors of Darwinian life? Every cubic metre of the planet will shortly be computationally accessible to surveillance and micro-management. Mastery of our genetic source code, the era of mass-manufactured in vitro meat, and the CRISPR revolution in biotech can in principle make obligate carnivory obsolete. So should sentient beings be encouraged to keep harming each other indefinitely?
Reactions? Well, a minority of futurists believe that traditional Darwinian life is life well lost (cf. Robert Wiblin, “Why improve Nature when destroying it is so much easier?”
Bioconservatives and traditionally-minded conservation biologists seek to preserve some version of the Darwinian status quo indefinitely – and even turn the clock back via “rewilding”:
Between these two extremes, preserving a recognisable approximation of today's “charismatic mega-fauna” minus predation, starvation and disease offers a messy and costly compromise. Perhaps compromise will prove more sociologically acceptable.
That said, IMO the first priority of vegans and ethically-minded people everywhere should be shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Until humans stop paying for the industrialised abuse of other sentient beings, the idea of compassionate stewardship of Nature is probably fanciful.
* * *
Should abolitionism (bioethics) be applied to non-humans?
Suffering doesn't matter less if experienced by members of another ethnic group. Nor does suffering of equivalent intensity matter less if the victims belong to a different species. Brain-scaling suggests that the intensity of experience undergone by, say, a sperm whale may surpass humans. The intensity of experience undergone by humans and other primates is presumably greater than the experience of mice.
However, such comparisons are invidious. Human mastery of our genetic source code, the accelerating revolution in computing and artificial intelligence, and CRISPR genome-editing technologies promise a major evolutionary transition in the development of life on Earth. Whether the biology of involuntary suffering persists indefinitely in the living world will depend on the policy-decisions of the cognitively dominant species on the planet, Homo sapiens.
For an overview of the abolitionist project, see:
The ultimate circumference of our "expanding circle" of compassion is clearly speculative. Unfortunately, speculations on responsible stewardship of our Hubble volume by posthuman superintelligence risk sounding like science fiction rather than applied ethics. Presumably, today's radical futurology will soon sound quaint. I'd love to think screeds on phasing out suffering will shortly seem as topical as illuminated medieval manuscripts. Alas, I've a sinking feeling the biology of suffering still has a long(ish) future in human and nonhuman animals alike.
If (as many people do) we view suffering as primarily environmentally-driven, then talk of its abolition will sound impossibly far-reaching. Just think of the billions and trillions of diverse things that make people unhappy. The biology of our core emotions, on the other hand, is comparatively simple.
* * *
An elegant way to control the behaviour of mice and men, but alas ethical pitfalls abound.
("Futuristic brain probe allows for wireless control of neurons
Scientists developed an ultra-thin, minimally invasive device for controlling brain cells with drugs and light")
* * *
Snakes: should we conserve, tweak, or retire them?
("Protective mother rabbit takes on big black snake to save its young")
Robert, yes, is it more fruitful to debate general philosophical principles, e.g. should we aim to conserve predation? Or start with concrete case studies like the above; ask whether it’s right, wrong or optional to intervene; and then draw wider ethical lessons? In practice, we should do both. But a concrete example helps focus debate on why these issues matter where abstractions fail – and invites a much higher level of support for compassionate intervention.
I used to worry whether discussing e.g. the future of predation, compassionate stewardship of tomorrow’s wildlife parks, and so forth was a distraction from the more pressing issue of closing factory-farms and slaughterhouses – the immense and readily avoidable harm for which humans are directly responsible. Yet many animal advocates (and others) see no tension in supporting “re-wilding”, captive breeding programs for predatory species and other costly and time-consuming initiatives that actively harm other sentient beings. So it's good to discuss the principles at stake now.
* * *
A Welfare State for Elephants?
Thanks Tom. One can't have a serious ethical debate about "de-wilding" rather than "re-wilding" if people suppose compassionate stewardship of the living world isn't computationally feasible. And if you don't highlight the concept of cross-species immunocontraception, people will assume you're ignorant of the thermodynamics of a food chain. It's tempting to kick the whole issue of free-living animal suffering into the long grass until factory-farms and slaughterhouses are shut in the wake of the in vitro meat revolution. But the growth of "de-extinction" and "re-wilding" initiatives suggests we should be having the debate sooner rather than later.
* * *
What's it like to be a sperm whale - probably more sentient than adult humans and demonstrably more sapient than juvenile humans?
("The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals")
("The world's most famous utilitarian on whether all carnivorous animals should be killed")
Should obligate predators and parasites have reproductive rights? But in the post-CRISPR era, it’s also possible to envisage genetically and behaviourally tweaking members of existing predatory species so they no longer cause harm: “compassionate conservation”.
[on plant (in)sentience]
Sean, the risk of headlines like "Plants can see, hear, smell, and respond to threats" is the same risk as headlines like "Silicon robots can see, hear, smell, and respond to threats". A well-attested functional capacity can easily be conflated with an entirely separate claim, namely that the information-processing system in question undergoes the "raw feels" of a unitary subject of experience. To confuse things further, biophysics suggests that plants do act as "quantum computers" during photosynthesis. (cf. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-it-comes-to-photosynthesis-plants-perform-quantum-computation/)
But plants have no nervous systems with distributed neuronal feature-processors to be bound. In short, plants are zombies.
NDEs? Out-of-body experiences are often reckoned anomalous. But really, it's in-the-body experiences that are mysterious if neurons are the discrete, decohered, membrane-bound effectively classical objects that textbook neuroscience assumes. How are the multiple topographic maps of the brain superposed into a single integrated cross-modally matched body-image at the centre of one's world-simulation?
Perhaps it "emerges". :-)
[on magic buttons]
"If you had a magic button that could put an end to all sufferings on earth (psychological, physical, social, etc), would you press it? And why?"
Most people wouldn't press the button. But alternatively, imagine if you had a magic button that could create another Earth identical to ours with all its sufferings (psychological, physical, social, etc), would you press it? And why?
Status quo bias corrupts our judgement and our morals.
As phrased, the question has apocalyptic overtones that may cloud responses. But I wonder what percentage of people would press the magic button if overtones of Armageddon were absent. Imagine how bad human suffering would be if we couldn't rationalise it. Sadly, most sentient beings can't rationalise their suffering at all.
In reality, there are no magic buttons. But we can use biotechnology to phase out the biology of involuntary suffering.
[on the fate of the universe]
Cosmology is in flux. So the lame but honest answer is we don't know - especially after the last supermassive black holes evaporate in 10100 years or so. What mature posthuman superintelligence can and can't do on cosmological scale is still an open question too. But physicist Don Page estimates that the Poincaré recurrence time
of our observable universe is around 10^10^10^10^2.08 years. The Poincaré recurrence time of a super-inflationary universe of the kind imagined by theorist Andrei Linde is around 10^10^10^10^10^1.1 years:
If so, it's been quite some time since you last asked this question or will do so again - though still a twinkle in the eye of eternity.
[on the illusion of being Special]
I wonder what percentage of people do believe, at some stage or other, they are somehow uniquely unique, divinely inspired, Man of Destiny (etc) - even if they are socially savvy enough not to say so. After all, natural selection has ensured that each of us is at the centre of his or her own world-simulation and other folk have walk-on parts. The egocentric illusion is immensely genetically adaptive. Moreover, a fairly high level of philosophical sophistication is needed even to recognise that perceptual naive realism is false. If one is a perceptual direct realist - and many people are, implicitly at least - then the universe really is centred on me and follows me around.
The fitness-enhancing illusion of being special is presumably only strengthened if you are a bit different from your immediate peers - the cleverest kid in your class, or whatever. J.B.S. Haldane, anticipating sociobiology and kin-selection theory, used to joke that he would lay down his life for two of his brothers or eight of his cousins. From a gene's eye view, placing one's own well-being above an entire Third World country, for example, is genetically adaptive - other things being equal at any rate. Just as science aspires to an impartial "view from nowhere", we need to do the same for ethics. Natural selection has ensured it won't be easy.
One complication is that almost anything worthwhile (in the great scheme of things) tends to be achieved by folk who are unusually prey to the illusion of being Special. Genuinely modest and unassuming people tend not to make much of an impact on the world.
* * *
Are you wealthy, witty and wise? How can we transcend the zero-sum status games of Darwinian social life?
("Does being self-deprecating help or harm you socially")
[on debating a radical eliminativist]
Imagine someone who says he believes he is surrounded by insentient p-zombies. For it's impossible to derive consciousness from the underlying physics; a causally sufficient explanation of the behaviour of organic robots doesn't invoke consciousness at all. Next imagine someone who says he believes he is surrounded by micro-experiential zombies. Sure, individual membrane-bound neurons may support rudimentary consciousness. But a pack of discrete, decohered, classical neurons is no more a unitary subject of experience than an ant colony.
Neither a materialist ontology nor classical physics respectively are inconsistent with these two claims. The challenge is refuting them: I think doing so will take an intellectual revolution.
* * *
Matt, natural selection (or human ingenuity in the case of in vitro neuronal networks) can indeed recruit neurons into playing a semantic or quasi-semantic role in information-processing systems. But that's not the phenomenal binding problem. 320 million skull-bound American minds each simultaneously undergoing a pinprick does not generate a pan-continental subject of experience in agony - even if individual Americans tell each other about their respective pinpricks. By contrast, a pack of (ostensibly) discrete, decohered, classical, membrane-bound neurons separated by chemical synapses or electrical gap-junctions are sometimes an agonised subject of experience. The challenge is to explain how this is possible without giving up on physicalism and the ontological unity of science à la David Chalmers.
Matt, natural selection (or human ingenuity in the case of in vitro neuronal networks) can indeed recruit neurons into playing a semantic or quasi-semantic role in information-processing systems. But that's not the phenomenal binding problem. 320 million skull-bound American minds each simultaneously undergoing a pinprick does not generate a pan-continental subject of experience in agony - even if individual Americans tell each other about their respective pinpricks. By contrast, a pack of (ostensibly) discrete, decohered, classical, membrane-bound neurons separated by chemical synapses or electrical gap-junctions are sometimes an agonised subject of experience. The challenge is to explain how this is possible without giving up on physicalism and the ontological unity of science à la David Chalmers.
I'm not in pain now. But if I plunge my hand into iced water and hold it there, for example, there will not just be belief-episodes that I am in pain but also unpleasant "raw feels". Before long, the intensifying pain will induce me to take my hand out. Could I be mistaken about the existence of such nasty experiences? Well, in the realm of pure phenomenology, the distinction between appearance and reality collapses. By all means speculate that an oasis spied in the desert is a mirage - but not that there is no mirage.
Neuropathic pain serves no information processing role. Pain experienced after stubbing one's toe signals bodily distress. Neither neuropathic nor information-signalling pain is explained if either 1) the fundamental stuff of the world is non-experiential (the Hard Problem of consciousness) and/or 2) neurons are discrete, decohered classical objects (the Binding Problem). My experience of pain is not an inference I make or invoke to explain my belief-episodes, but rather the phenomenon I wish to explain.
* * *
Ockham's razor is a powerful tool. But so is the principle of falsification. If a phenomenon is inconsistent with one's favourite theory, and if one has no explanation – or even an explanation-space – of how that phenomenon can be reconciled with one's cherished beliefs, then sometimes the humblest thing to do is admit defeat. In the case of our conscious minds, traditional “materialist” physicalism has no explanation of how conscious minds are possible at all, or how they could have the causal efficacy to talk about their own existence, or how they could be phenomenally bound in ways inconsistent with classical or quantum physics. (cf. “Why Panpsychism does help explain consciousness”
Philosophers of science have christened the existence of consciousness “The Hard Problem”. Yet imagine if nineteenth century biblical literalists had talked solemnly of The Hard Problem of fossils. In practice, a majority of religious believers were sensible enough to discount Philip Gosse's proposal that God placed fossils in geological strata as a means of testing Man's Faith. For the parallel to be complete, the religious counterpart of a Daniel Dennett would be the author of the eliminativist tract “Fossils Explained”. For what it's worth, I reckon monistic physicalism can be saved. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/) But on current evidence, the burden of proof falls squarely on physicalism.
* * *
("Exclusive: Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio and Others Debate Christof Koch on the Nature of Consciousness")
"We have no idea why or how consciousness exists at all; or how consciousness could have the causal efficacy to allow us to discuss its existence, or how consciousness could be locally or globally bound by a pack of classical neurons, or why consciousness has any of its countless textures.”
No, none the participants actually said that! But materialist metaphysics is in a dire straits: its credibility comes from riding on the coattails of science. To many secular rationalists, "scientific materialism" sounds as though it must be the only game in town.
No so. I don’t know if non-materialistic physicalism is true - perhaps the real explanation-space lies beyond the conception of the human mind – but unlike materialism, physicalistic idealism is not demonstrably false.
http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-best-non-materialist-theories-of-consciousness/answer/David-Pearce-18("What are the best non-materialist theories of consciousness?")
* * *
("The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time")
Smolin's perspective is the opposite to the "timeless" Everett and two-state vector approach put forward by researchers like Lev Vaidman. Unfortunately, in his Edge contribution, Smolin just takes for granted that deterministic no-collapse QM is false ("quantum physics is inherently non-deterministic") without offering any account of how or why the unitary dynamics breaks down. This contestable assumption means Smolin overlooks a solution to the phenomenal binding problem (we've no evidence the superposition principle breaks down in the CNS) and the Hard Problem of consciousness to boot. Also, in his Edge piece, Smolin simply assumes that the world's fundamental fields are non-experiential and asks how these non-experiential fields "give rise to" consciousness in the brain. But in physics, fields (or branes - Smolin doesn't believe in them) are defined purely mathematically, even though their effects show they are physically real. If instead the intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential, and unmodified QM is universal, then monistic physicalism can be saved - and the Hard Problem recognised an artefact of materialist metaphysics.
[Sorry, I just re-read what I've written above. It sounds a bit dogmatic. The real answer is no one knows!]
* * *
In multiverse branches where the Nazis won WW2, scientists may wonder at the extraordinary fine-tuning of the physics constants to generate Aryans. Doing anthropics needs care when choosing one's reference class - and likewise, care in drawing ethical conclusions.
* * *
Lost in Hilbert space?
(Physicists debate Whether quantum math is as real as atoms")
"The objective world simply is, it does not happen", says Hermann Weyl in "Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science" (1949).
For a contemporary defence of this position, see Jan-Markus Schwindt: "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation": http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf
For a semi-popular counterblast to timeless physics, perhaps see Lee Smolin's "Time Reborn":
Stillborn, IMO. But I'm not convinced anyone understands what's really going on.
Some folk argue that consciousness is akin to life. Before Darwin, Mendel and the Modern Synthesis, life was irreducible and inexplicable. Now we understand (in principle!) how to reduce molecular biology to quantum chemistry, and chemistry to physics. There is no "Hard Problem" of life; it's emergent, but only in a weak and harmless sense of "emergent". Will consciousness go the same way? ("This year's Nobel prize goes to the team who solved the Hard Problem and the binding problem") Or is our understanding of the natural world due for a revolutionary shake-up at least as radical as anything in the twentieth century? Above all, I think we should ask anyone with a conjecture about consciousness or phenomenal binding, "Does it yield any novel, precise, experimentally testable predictions?"
[on a zero ontology]
What exactly is the default condition - intuitively, "nothing" - from which any departure stands in need of explanation? Yes, a zero ontology is the only explanation space I can conceive.
Max Tegmark's question "Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?" (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9603008v1.pdf) can be reposed. Does reality in fact contain no information? [zero information = all possible self-consistent descriptions = Everett's multiverse] Are a zero ontology and the superposition principle identical? [Whence the Born rule? Perhaps see http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0405161v2.pdf] Clearly, we're missing something. But it's a spooky coincidence, to say the least, that something analogous to our pre-theoretic intuition that nothing whatsoever should exist does actually appear to be the case.
The biggest challenge, I think, for any zero ontology is the myriad textures of consciousness. Here my ideas are idiosyncratic, to say the least, but empirically falsifiable with the tools of next-generation interferometry: https://www.physicalism.com
* * *
Informally, if nothing had existed, then there would be nothing to explain. So no violation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. What is this default condition from which only departures would need explaining? I suspect a zero ontology and the superposition principle are one and the same. Information can neither be created nor destroyed and is universally zero. But how could qualia cancel to zero? In quantum theory, interference comes about when two (nonvanishing) amplitudes are added together to get zero, which would be impossible if amplitudes were never negative. Negative amplitudes and negatively valued qualia(?): I'm worried this is starting to sound like schizophrenic word-salad.
Experimentally testing a zero ontology? IMO, it would be refuted by any failure of unitarity. It's been tested only up to the scale of fullerenes. Dynamical collapse theorists (Penrose, GRW, etc) predict it will fail. If they are vindicated, I can't see any way to rescue the conjecture.
Peter, for me, the stumbling-block is experience; if it doesn't "cancel out", in some sense, to zero, then a zero ontology can't work. However, unlike probing for a failure of the unitary dynamics in QM, I can't think of any experiments we could do that could (potentially) falsify the conjecture. So it's just "philosophical".
Our best clue to the answer lies in quantum theory itself. Recall that Stephen Hawking describes Everett as "trivially true" - a bold claim for a self-avowed positivist. A critic may protest, "A theory that explains everything explains nothing" - to which I can only respond, "Exactly!". The existence of any kind of "preferred basis", or any breakdown of the unitary dynamics of QM, would falsify a zero ontology, not just Everett. Yet why isn't there just the state we may represent as "0" rather than complex probability amplitudes that cancel to 0?
I don't know; but perhaps we're groping towards the answer.
Peter, thanks, he obvious response is that you do have some information. After all, you've just seen a live cat! So an informationless zero ontology is false.
However, as the tale of Wigner's friend illustrates (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wigner's_friend), creating information de novo isn't so simple.
Couldn't God stop the infinite regress, so to speak, picking out one privileged volume in the Library of Babel - or less picturesquely, some "privileged basis" from the universal state-vector?
Maybe. But how can we generate the information to create God?
It's worth mentioning that Everett didn't arrive at his interpretation of QM in the service of some sort of zero ontology; indeed, to my knowledge he never discussed the issue. Nor did Everett arrive at his interpretation to explain the spooky anthropic coincidences that make life possible. Rather, he just accepted the "bare formalism" of QM at face value. However, in both cases, Everettian QM promises to make what would otherwise seem inexplicable simply natural. On the other hand, as I said, the slightest departure from the unitary dynamics would also mean the whole approach we're discussing is is false.
* * *
Our attempts rigorously to specify what this default state – naively, “nothing” – should be always end up smuggling in something substantive. Is this failure a clue? Perhaps what we conceive as the quantum “law” - more specifically, the hypothetical unrestricted global validity of the superposition principle - is really just the enforcement of a zero ontology: not “nothing” as we naively conceive a state of nothingness, namely as some kind of featureless and timeless void, but rather a zero-information default-state from which any departure would stand in need of explanation.
Information is fundamental to our understanding of the natural world. Physics tells us (assuming “no collapse” QM) that information can neither be created nor destroyed. Therefore, it’s natural to ask where information came from in the first instance. Yet what theory and experiment alike seem to be hinting at is that, from a notional God-eye perspective, there may no overall information at all: our world is what a zero ontology entails. No, I’m not claiming a zero ontology is the explanation. But perhaps we’re circling the right explanation-space.
* * *
Why does anything exist?
No one knows the explanation. But perhaps a zero ontology hints at an explanation-space where the answer will ultimately be found. What would be the case if the total information content of reality were exactly zero? Like the Library of Babel, this scenario seems uncannily analogous to the message of our best theory of the world, post-Everett quantum mechanics. For there's a sense in which the universal state-vector of QM doesn't contain any information. See e.g. Jan-Markus Schwindt http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf ("Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation")
"A theory that explains everything explains nothing" is sometimes treated as a shortcoming of Everettian QM. But maybe this supposed vice is really a virtue - and a clue. For a fundamental principle of physics says that information can neither be created nor destroyed. Taken literally, this prohibition means that information could never be created in the first instance. In this sense, a zero ontology is an experimentally falsifiable conjecture. Any breakdown of the unitary dynamics of QM (a so-called "collapse of the wavefunction") would falsify not just Everett but also a zero ontology. The largest scale on which the superposition principle has been tested to date is fullerene molecules ("buckyballs"). Scaling up to the whole of reality is quite a leap; but may be inevitable - on pain of creating information ex nihilo.
In my view, the greatest challenge facing any kind of zero ontology is first-person experience. However, let's assume wavefunction monism: all experiences are mathematically encoded in the universal wavefunction. On this story, sentient beings are wavefunctions in configuration space - fields of phenomenally bound subjective experiences whose exact textures are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe's configuration space. If we possessed some kind of cosmic Rosetta Stone, then we could understand how the values of all experiences necessarily have the textures they do in virtue of "cancelling out" to zero too.
As I said, this is an explanation-space - not an explanation.
* * *
In a sense, physics may already have given us the answer - if only we were smart enough to interpret the bare formalism of quantum theory correctly. First we need to firm up our pre-theoretic intuition of "nothingness", often mistakenly reified as some sort of timeless void.
What exactly is this default state of zero information from which any notional departure would stand in need of an explanation? Then consider the formalism of our best scientific description of the world, post-Everett quantum mechanics. Strictly speaking, the universal state-vector of QM doesn't contain any information. See e.g. Jan-Markus Schwindt: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447v1.pdf. The absence of any "preferred basis" is commonly viewed as a grievous problem for Everettian QM. Perhaps we'd do better instead to trust the bare formalism and view the absence of any such preferred basis as a compelling advantage. Of course, it's natural to assume that the universal state-vector must contain humongous amounts of information. Naively, we can imagine God (or someone) subtracting information from the quantum-coherent superposition formalised by the universal state-vector. If so, then the formalism wouldn't really describe a zero ontology. But like discarding books from the Library of Babel, the paradoxical effect of such notional subtraction would be to create information. And the creation or destruction of information is precisely what a zero ontology prohibits.
Complications? I can think of one or two.
* * *
Santayana remarked on how one's moment-to-moment belief in anything beyond solipsism-of-the-here-and-now rested on “blind animal faith”. Getting from the here-and-now to the multiverse of post-Everett quantum mechanics involves huge inferential leaps However...
One clue to why anything at all exists is presumably the nature of what actually exists. Many theorists would say “information”. Naively, there's a lot of it! Information can neither be created nor destroyed. If it turns out that the information content of reality amounts to exactly zero, then this is a tantalising clue at least. It's not as though Everettian QM was gerrymandered for the purposes of defending a zero ontology. Treating what many critics say is a fatal shortcoming of Everettian QM as a cardinal virtue is unorthodox, to say the least.
Can a zero ontology accommodate first-person experience? Do solutions to the master equation of Everettian QM yield the values of consciousness - which thereby cancels out to zero too? I've no idea how to prove such a conjecture. Yet what we can do is try experimentally to falsify it, i.e. locate some information-bearing feature of our phenomenal minds that is absent from the formalism of physics. [Or alternatively, see if unitarity fails - as Penrose and other “dynamical collapse” theorists claim - which really would create information.]
The clearest example of such a mismatch seems to be the phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors and the existence of one's bound phenomenal self: the “structural mismatch” between phenomenology and the physical brain that pushes David Chalmers towards dualism. It's not that quantum physics can't phenomenally bind – the universality of the superposition principle means it can't do anything else over short enough timescales – but rather the dynamical timescale of the binding seems wrong by orders of magnitude. Decoherence of neuronal superpositions is ludicrously fast in the CNS. Fortunately, experiment should decide the issue.
Could a zero ontology be barking up the wrong tree?
But if it's the wrong explanation-space, where might we look for an alternative?
I don't know.
* * *
Thanks Mark. I was about to say that my philosophical musings are best kept separate from an HI Action Plan. But in order to act ethically and responsibly, intelligent agents will need to understand the world and the theoretical upper bounds of rational agency and act accordingly.
Can we at least aspire to do good in the meantime?
I hope so.
* * *
Philosophers normally invoke the Principle of Sufficient Reason . Clearly, we don't know the answer to why anything exists. Yet we may still ask: why is there a state of affairs analogous, in some sense, to our pre-theoretic conception of “Nothing”? If we're barking up the wrong tree, why doesn't the universal state vector of QM contain any information – as would appear to be the case if Everettian QM is true? The Library of Babel may give us a picturesque conception of what zero information entails. But why is there a Library in the first place? Likewise with the universal wavefunction. Maybe complex probability amplitudes do all cancel to 0. But why should anything need “cancelling”?
A clue, at least, may be the extreme difficulty we have in formalising our pre-theoretic notion of “nothing” - the default condition any departure from which stands in need of explanation. One always ends up smuggling in some substantive property to this supposed alternative. But if this is a clue, will it be strong enough to unlock the answer?
Is there anything science can't explain?
The conjecture that the superposition principle of QM explains literally everything - from why anything exists at all to the properties of our phenomenally-bound minds - can't be verified. But the conjecture can be experimentally falsified. Most folk would confidently affirm it's false, albeit for different reasons! However, assume for a moment that the conjecture survives every experimental test. Despite such bold scientific triumphalism, IMO we'll still be akin to sorcerers casting spells. This is because we lack the cosmological analogue of a Rosetta Stone to "read off" the values of qualia from the solutions to the master equation of tomorrow's TOE.
[on Armchair Physics]
Could there ever be another Michael Faraday? Faraday knew no maths beyond arithmetic and some basic algebra: he modestly described himself as "amathematical". Yet Maxwell writes that Faraday's uses of lines of force show him "to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order - one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods." So could Ed Witten fruitfully draw inspiration from the works of, say, Deepak Chopra? This remains to be shown.
A test for consciousness other than the Turing Test? Matt, there's a very powerful experimental test IMO (see below). On pain of "strong" emergence, we should take seriously the conjecture that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. And on this story, it might seem natural to suppose that both transistors and neurons are a little bit conscious, and nervous systems and "silicon brains" are very conscious, with lots of gradations in between – in effect, a substrate-neutral version of the Great Chain of Being for consciousness.
But the critical issue is binding. The CNS is a dreamless sleep, or the 100-million-odd neurons of our sophisticated “brain-in-the-gut”, i.e. the enteric nervous system, are not unitary subjects of experience. Nor - unless we abandon physicalism - are the circuits of a classical digital computer. So why aren't organic minds ever anything other than micro-experiential zombies too like the enteric nervous system?
David Chalmers argues there isn't a physicalist explanation here: the binding problem is insoluble by classical or quantum physics. I agree with Chalmers that classical Jamesian neuronal “mind-dust” can't explain phenomenal binding. Yet whether a quantum field-theoretic account does or doesn't work can be settled only experimentally, not by philosophising. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6) If the unitary dynamics of QM doesn't break down in the CNS, then we know that neuronal superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors must occur, albeit unsustainably. Short of modifying or supplementing the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, next-generation interferometry will detect their unmistakable signature. So what will the nonclassical interference effects disclose? “Psychotic” nonsense of the kind we'd (presumably) decipher in the CPU of a digital computer - just computationally and phenomenally irrelevant noise? Or instead a perfect isomorphism between the phenomenology of our bound phenomenal minds the underlying formalism of QFT?
At this point, the philosophically-minded will rush to express a strong opinion on the experimental outcome they believe is likely - a robust response seemingly untroubled by our immense ignorance of the nature of consciousness. Whereas the experimentally-minded will say (I hope): “I find this empirical prediction wildly implausible. But let's do the experiment to find out.”
* * *
Garret, ordinary biology is quantum biology:
Classical physics is a false theory of the world; there is no scientific evidence that the superposition principle breaks down in the CNS.
We should be as intolerant of classical woo as quantum woo.
Thus if anyone says that some phenomenon or other classically "emerges", I say, great, could you kindly show [or at least outline] the derivation? It's not that one can disprove claims that "The Internet is conscious" , "Plants are sentient", "The USA is a pan-continental subject of experience", "My PC gets lonely sometimes", (etc). But such claims are impossible to derive from the underlying physics - and don't lead to any novel, precise, testable predictions by which they can be falsified.
* * *
If panpsychism is true, and if wavefunction monism is true, why isn’t there just a single cosmic mega-mind? Maybe the solution to the phenomenal unbinding problem lies in decoherence, i.e. the scrambling of phase angles between the components of our cosmic superposition. This conjecture is experimentally falsifiable, in principle. But creating in vitro neuronal superpositions [“Schrödinger’s neurons”) and then testing and controlling their behaviour is exceedingly difficult because decoherence is one of the fastest processes known in physics. Most neuroscientists would say that decoherence makes quantum superpositions irrelevant to consciousness [which "emerges" by day, just as the tooth-fairy emerges at night]. See:
How does quantum mechanics explain human mind?
Conventional answer: quantum mechanics can’t explain the human mind. Despite the universal validity of the superposition principle, we see a live cat or a dead cat, never a live-and-dead cat superposition. Thermally-induced decoherence "destroys" [i.e. scrambles to the environment in a thermodynamically irreversible way] superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the warm, wet CNS too rapidly to support phenomenal binding into perceptual objects. (cf. http://arxiv.org/pdf/1404.2635v1.pdf) Not least, the dynamical timescale for such neuronal feature-binding is wrong – femtoseconds or less versus [we assume] scores of milliseconds. In consequence, the existence of phenomenally-bound perceptual objects populating our classical world-simulations remains a fathomless mystery.
Unconventional answer: only quantum mechanics can explain the mind. The universal validity of the superposition principle explains why we see classical cats in phenomenal world-simulations described by an approximation of classical mechanics. If membrane-bound neurons in the CNS were discrete, decohered classical objects, as we naively assume, then packs of neurons would at most be micro-experiential zombies: mere patterns of what William James christened "mind-dust". (cf. http://www.academia.edu/3827581/Why_panpsychism_doesnt_help_explain_consciousness)
For 86 billion odd distributed neuronal "pixels" of experience [colour-, motion-, shape-, edge- (etc) detectors] could no more create a phenomenally-bound classical cat-percept than 320 million skull-bound American minds could intercommunicate to create a unitary pan-continental cat-experience. Classical physics can’t explain local or global phenomenal binding. By contrast, quantum physics potentially delivers a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of our minds and QFT – confounding David Chalmers’ dualism.
Can we put these two rival conjectures to the test? Unfortunately, armchair physicists probably underestimate the technical challenges to creating and experimentally manipulating in vitro "Schrödinger’s neurons" superpositions. Yet unless the unitary dynamics of QM breaks down in neuronal networks (unlikely!), fleeting neuronal superpositions must exist. What’s in question is whether decoherence in the CNS is too fast and uncontrollable for selection pressure ever to have got to work.
For a nice non-technical overview of the decoherence program in post-Everett QM, see John Campbell’s review of Zurek’s “Quantum Darwinism”:
[on 'The Extended Phenotype']
The Extended Phenotype? Gabriel, yes, it's Dawkins' most original contribution. I should add that the conjecture that one person's low mood could be the expression of someone else's extended phenotype [rather than just a genetically selfish behavioural adaptation of the individual] is merely speculation on my part, not received wisdom. On this story, however, there's presumably a trade-off. In the ancestral environment, a behaviourally suppressed depressive whom you've cowed is less likely to be a reproductive rival attractive to scarce females. But equally, he's less likely to be an effective fellow warrior in a life-or-death struggle with another tribe - which would bad news for the inclusive fitness of one's genes. Perhaps game-theoretic modelling could explore different scenarios in depth? As usual, I've got no further than philosophising...
[on dreaming and world-simulation]
Do we perceive the world or simulate it? Whether we are dreaming of awake, the world-simulation model is more tenable IMO than either direct or indirect perceptual realism. When we are awake, input from the optic nerve (etc) partially selects the contents of our internally generated world-simulations. But selection is as it far as it goes. One of the best contemporary expositors of the world-simulation metaphor is Antti Revonsuo:
How do we acquire the semblance of a public language if our colourful virtual worlds are merely simulations? Wittgenstein famously denied the very possibility of a private language. Well, first of all our minds must learn to run data-driven simulations of a mother who instructs us. Only then can we begin to start learning how to use a second-order representation like language and later a third-order representation or meta-language to talk about talk.
Scepticism about dreams? Might we confabulate on waking - with false memories of dream content? Such radical scepticism is hard to reconcile with the behaviour of rare people who lack the muscular atony that stops the rest of is acting out our dreams. When people with REM movement disorder are woken, their verbal reports of dream content typically match the behaviour they acted out while they were asleep:
Also, consider the pre-arranged communications protocol that can be established with lucid dreamers:
("The mysteries of 'lucid' dreaming")
* * *
Can biotech deliver happy memories for mice and men?
("Scientists insert happy memories into the brains of sleeping mice. It was all a dream - or was it?")
* * *
"Death is not an event in life", said Wittgenstein.
Victims of Cotard's syndrome might beg to differ:
("Living with being Dead")
* * *
Can our theory of computation ever embrace investigation of "program-resistant" states of consciousness?
("Computability: Turing, Gödel, Church, and Beyond")
Full-spectrum superintelligence will presumably meld Shulgin and Turing. But the challenge is daunting:
("Premature Babies May Survive at 22 Weeks if Treated, Study Finds")
Urging that pigs be treated with the same love, care and affection as micro-preemies is still speciesist because pigs are more sentient (and sapient) than human infants; but it's a start.
Rick, on negative utilitarian grounds I favour (complications aside) enshrining the sanctity of life in law. Humans can't be trusted to make what naively seem "utilitarian" policy decisions.
If only we could trigger a brutally competitive arms race of conspicuous male altruism...
("No empathy? Fake it with an app that perfects your online self")
[on the science of sexiness]
Will the science of sexiness lead to radical enhancement technologies?
Or just remedial therapy?
Should gene therapy be used to create monogamous or polyamorous humans rather than today's miserable hybrids?
("Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes")
Mark, as one of Goldschmidt's "hopeful monsters", I'd urge my genome to be put on the Index. But then I suspect any full-spectrum superintelligence would do the same for Darwinian life.
If one describes the emotional effects of relationships while giving the impression one is talking about a drug, then most people have little hesitation in saying the evil agent in question should be banned. Alas our genes didn't "intend" us to be happy. Fortunately, happiness-promoting alleles and allelic combinations may be highly fitness-enhancing in the new reproductive era.
[on the medium of thought]
Will pop-science supersede pseudo-science?
("The Decline of Pseudoscience")
Jera, my scepticism about current knowledge-claims isn't that I suppose Newton's approximate inverse square law of gravity will be superseded by, say, an inverse cube law or I doubt an approximation to Einstein's field equations of GR will be derivable from a TOE. It's not even that I doubt our contemporary conception of the intrinsic nature of the physical or the alleged classicality of bound organic minds – though here I really am sceptical. Rather, it's to do with the medium of our knowledge, human thought, in contrast the medium of mature posthuman thinking. To what extent do the generic properties of human thought-episodes mould and even constitute what we take to be their propositional content? One of the features of psychedelic drugs isn't merely the gross perceptual changes they induce and their radical alteration of our sense of self, but rather the manner they alter, in inexpressible ways, the medium of thought itself. It's not as though one can step outside the vehicle of one's thinking to compare and contrast the different ways in which the properties of the medium have been contaminating its notional content. More pithily, "The medium is the message”?? No, but a radically different medium of thinking may entail a radical different conception of ourselves and the world.
[on artificial general intelligence]
An information processing system cannot be an AGI if it is cognitively incapable of investigating the nature of consciousness - its existence, varieties and phenomenal binding. A full-spectrum general (super)intelligence can investigate both the first-person and third-person properties of matter and energy. How naturally evolved biological robots like us are physically capable of investigating consciousness is a very deep question. On theoretical grounds, I'm personally sceptical that classical digital computers will ever cease to be invincibly ignorant zombies. Insentient "narrow" intelligence can still be exceedingly useful to us.
("Should the goal for AI (or tech in general) be to end suffering?)
It’s worth stressing that one needn’t be any kind of ethical utilitarian to believe humanity (or superintelligent AI) should phase out the biology of suffering. Alas negative utilitarianism has become associated with plotting Armageddon. However, superintelligence with a classical utilitarian ethic would arguably pose a greater threat to human civilisation. This is because a disguised implication of a classical utilitarian ethic is that intelligent agents should launch a so-called utilitronium shockwave, presumably obliterating human life is some kind of trillion-year cosmic orgasm. (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/social-media/pre2014.html)
Such apocalyptic scenarios make entertaining thought-experiments. But the morally serious point here is that we’ll soon have the technical capacity to abolish involuntary suffering in humans and nonhumans alike. Life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss needn’t involve sacrificing most of our existing values and preferences if we focus on genetically raising hedonic set-points rather than maximising raw bliss.
* * *
The Binding Problem.
No, nothing to do with S&M...
(image credit Andres Gomez Emilsson)
Alas ask a computer science grad or AI researcher “What’s your opinion of the computational significance of Kant’s Transcendental Unity of Apperception?” and you’re likely to get an uncomprehending stare. But explaining how a pack of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound neurons is capable of “global” binding – the fleeting unity of perception and unity of the self – and “local” binding” - turning the micro-experiences of distributed neuronal feature-processors into individual perceptual objects within our world-simulations – is a huge challenge. Yes, it’s highly adaptive, as neurological disorders of phenomenal binding illustrate (cf. simultanagnosia, motion blindness, florid schizophrenia, etc). But being fitness-enhancing doesn’t explain how it’s possible. Telepathy would be highly adaptive too.
How we suppose the brain solves the binding problem has ramifications for the prospects of everything from “mind uploading” and digital sentience to the nature of posthuman superintelligence. As Andres knows, I have (very) weird ideas on how the binding problem might be solved. (cf. http://www.quora.com/What-evidence-is-there-for-quantum-computation-in-the-brain/answer/David-Pearce-18)
Yet there’s no point in considering weird solutions if one doesn’t believe there is a problem in the first instance (cf. Max Tegmark: “there is no binding problem”. If only.]
[on the Hedonistic Imperative]
Answering Quora questions offers endless scope for punditry and procrastination:
The Hedonistic Imperative (Quora)
Technical feasibility differs from sociological plausibility. HI was written in 1995. Mastery of our genetic source code, the development of in vitro meat, and the CRISPR revolution in biotechnology have left the merely technical arguments against phasing out the biology of suffering less convincing than they seemed two decades ago.
(cf. “Genetically Engineering Almost Anything”:
Yet how can we anticipate the outcome of the reproductive revolution of “designer babies”? What will the nature of selection pressure in an era when prospective parents can choose both the upper and lower hedonic bounds and the hedonic set-points of their future offspring?
(cf. "The Reproductive Revolution":
The Reproductive Revolution)
"Self-gratification" doesn't sound very noble or sublime. But the purpose of radically enriched hedonic set-points isn't just to improve everyone's default quality of life. Rather, it's to allow critical insight, social responsibility, depth of motivation and intellectual progress to be sustained. A plea for life based on gradients of intelligent bliss is very different from a plea for us to become “blissed out”. For a nice video introduction to the prospect of a “Triple S” civilisation of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence, perhaps see “Introduction to Transhumanism”:
Introduction to Transhumanism (video)
“May all that hath life be delivered from suffering”, said Gautama Buddha. “Buddhism plus biotech” – or perhaps “Bentham plus biotech” – still strikes me as a morally admirable goal compared to the cruelties of Darwinian life. By contrast, critics predict – and in some cases advocate - that involuntary pain and suffering will endure as long as life itself.
* * *
The World Health Organization affirms: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being."
Perhaps "complete" health for all is too ambitious. But life animated by gradients of bliss could be a stopgap on the route to mature posthuman sentience.
* * *
Some folk imagine that pain and pleasure are akin to negative and positive electric charge - cosmically destined to cancel each other out as some sort of immutable law of Nature. Such a belief is scientifically unwarranted. Over the next century or two, the biology of suffering will become optional. Should we preserve experience below "hedonic zero" indefinitely?
* * *
Anti-natalism seems like the ethically responsible position. If you care about suffering, don't bring children into the world. If you want to have children, adopt them instead! Sadly, it's hard to imagine a strategy better designed to create selection pressure against any predisposition to be ethically responsible. Better IMO to campaign for universal free-access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling – and instead create selection pressure for high pain-threshold, high hedonic set-point superhappy children.
Nihilists, Benatarians and negative utilitarians are not going to inherit the Earth.
Are you a transhumanist? If so, what tribe or species?
Seven Species of Transhumanism
[on the attention-based economy]
How brandable are you?
One of the (many) reasons I'm sceptical that unlimited material abundance in the absence of biological reward pathway enhancements will lead to unlimited well-being is...
However high-minded one believes one's motives may be, there is a strong element of "Notice Me!", especially in competitive male social primates...
(cf. "The Mating Mind": http://www.amazon.com/The-Mating-Mind-Sexual-Evolution/dp/038549517X
My score of 18,428,960 in Hitman Sniper makes me number 105 (Oct. 25) in the world rankings...
Alas the theme of the game isn't easy to reconcile with the tenets of high-tech Jainism.
[Important Update: 19, 594,080 (Nov. 15) - now no. 91 in the world]
The iPad Pro is a productivity tool; you can do more accurate headshots.
[Important Update: 23, 030, 940 (Dec. 15) - now no. 33 in the world. Alas I've probably peaked. Sic transit gloria mundi...]
("Guy Beats Fallout 4 Without Killing Anyone, Nearly Breaks The Game")
I haven't had as much success yet with "Hitman Sniper". How can we make kindness and compassion more fun?
Does the world need more plumbers or philosophers?
("Looking for the meaning of life? Just call the 24-hour philosopher-in-a-van")
We might claim that people who run factory-farms and slaughterhouses - or pay for them - have a "Syndrome E "(or whatever). But I'm not convinced such talk has scientific explanatory value as distiinct from propagandistic value. For what it's worth, people willing to sacrifice their own lives for their beliefs tend to be idealists. Tragically, their beliefs are often completely deluded. One reason that we are reluctant to try to understand behaviour like Paris is that "understand" has two meanings - causally explain and sympathise. If we don't understand (in the first sense) prevention may be impossible.
What should be the phyletic boundaries of consensual relationships?
("This Gorilla Is So Handsome, Women Are Flocking To The Zoo To See Him")
Probably a source of much tribal gossip...
("A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance")
It's unfair to demonise some drug companies, particularly to demons.
Antipsychotics are personality-eroding and pleasure-sapping drugs that should be used only as a last resort...
("America's Most Admired Lawbreaker")
Empathetic mathematicians are a rare breed....
Andrés Gómez Emilsson
Alas you can't win a Fields Medal in empathetic perspective-taking, which is arguably more intellectually demanding.
2C-E is best taken at homeopathic doses:
("Homeopathy conference ends in chaos after delegates take hallucinogenic drug.")
Declutterers versus hoarders:
("For some, the need to shed possessions is a life-consuming illness")
Oh for a dial for humans too:
("Scientists control rats' senses of familiarity, novelty")
A cure for cancer? An Earth-sterilising meteor heading our way? Sad to say, the first thing some folk do on hearing the news do is rush to register the domain:
BLTC websites & domains (2015)
When can paradise engineering transcend the cash nexus?
Can we genetically engineer lives of fun?
("Quick to laugh or smile? It may be in your genes")
See too: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/55893.stm
though rather more discrimination will be needed.
"This is your brain on tidiness". What does 'organization porn' do to your brain?
Should all babies be CRISPR babies? Or is the wisest option a genetic crapshoot?
http://www.nature.com/news/where-in-the-world-could-the-first-crispr-baby-be-born-1.18542 ("Where in the world could the first CRISPR baby be born?")
("On Myself, and other, less important subjects")
I retain a naturalistic conviction that making me the centre of the universe is just a hugely genetically adaptive lie - exactly what selfish DNA might be expected to generate in its survival machines. But an interesting read.
A review is here:
The health benefits of being a bully:
Is autism spectrum disorder a recipe for doing good science?
("Nobel Scientist's Claim Examined: Do Women Actually Cry More")
* * *
Nietzsche, transhumanism and pleasure...
And we all live happily ever after? The reviewer is not amused.
Einstein and Kim Kardashian - a match made in heaven?
("Straightened out: riddle of female curves")
High-tech Jainism or weapon of war? Alas we can guess.
("Half-machine, half-beetle takes to the air for the very first time")
Let's archive Nature and draw upon the library of post-Darwinian life instead:
Inside the scientific counter-culture
("Inside the Deep Web Drug Lab")
The fanatical desire to bring more life into the world
("German woman pregnant with quadruplets—at 65: report")
and the plight of millions desperate to escape
("Fatal silence: Why do so many fortysomething men kill themselves?")
What's the solution?
Who's your daddy?
("Why you're almost certainly more like your father than your mother")
Can global warming combat thermal bias?
("Weird Ways Cold Weather Affects Your Psyche")
Can we optimise the huntingtin gene for intelligence?
("A Faustian bargain Could the key to the evolution of the human brain be found in a dreadful illness?)
The pleasure principle runs deep...
("Dolphins ‘deliberately get high’ on puffer fish nerve toxins by carefully chewing and passing them around")
The neurological differences between terrorists and war heroes are obscure, to say the least.
Depression and suicidal behaviour is a separate issue. The tragic Andreas Lubitz case is atypical. Depressive people are typically burdened with an excessive and inappropriate sense of guilt. This sense doesn't typically manifest itself as research into spectacular ways to kill other people.
* * *
Scary? Or the world we should be aiming for?
("Meet the woman who can't feel fear")
Spray-and-sleep? Nice- but like all technologies, open to abuse:
("Spray-and-sleep idea has Indiegogo backers eager to rise")
Have you happened before?
("'Groundhog Day' student trapped in bizarre déjà vu time loop for 8 years")
[on meaning versus happiness]
("A Psychiatrist Who Survived The Holocaust Explains Why Meaningfulness Matters More Than Happiness")
Recall Primo Levi’s encounter with one of the guards at Auschwitz who wouldn't allow him to take an icicle to quench his thirst. When Levi asked why, the guard responded, "Hier ist kein warum" (There is no why here). Any attempt to find "meaning" in the horrors of Auschwitz - or the routine sufferings of everyday life – is probably doomed to fail, in part at least. Rationalisations can still be a valuable stopgap for humans (but not alas nonhuman animals) until we can engineer the biology of suffering out of the genome.
One problem with this message is that happiness in the abstract is such a dry and uninspiring goal. But if applied biotech can deliver life based on gradients of bliss, then life will feel super-meaningful too - probably more authentically meaningful that anything physiologically feasible today. No one says "I feel blissfully happy but my life feels meaningless"; and I doubt they ever will.
Can we imagine a totalitarian dystopia where everyone leads rich, happy and fulfilled lives?
("If you're unhappy in Dubai, the police may call you!")
[on the future]
Apocalyptic Libertarians) (Harpers, Jan. 2015; pdf)
("COME WITH US IF YOU WANT TO LIVE: Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley")
HI and Andrés (cf. video interview with the webmaster) make a guest appearance on page 33; but I feel we're seriously out-weirded by the competition. Where's it all going to end...
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11
David Pearce (2015)
The Abolitionist Project
Social Network Postings (2019)
The Hard Problem of Mind Solved(?)
Can Science Abolish Suffering? (2013)
Hedonistic Imperative Facebook Group Posts