JANUARY 2017 -[on the future]
Life in the year 3000?
Alas, I'm not convinced I know more than Busted...
24 Predictions for 3000 A.D.
No transcendent meaning or purpose? Jordan, unless our conceptual scheme is seriously mistaken, yes, I agree with you. After we have discharged all our ethical responsibilities to mitigate and prevent suffering, what is the point of it all? But can life based on gradients of sublime bliss - richer than today's peak experiences - empirically feel absurd or meaningless? Here I'm sceptical. I'm not even sure it's physiologically possible. Perhaps compare today's fanatical life lovers e.g. transhumanists dedicated to the study and prevention of existential risk. We normally treat it as axiomatic our successors will know more than we do. As I touch on in 19 ("Historical amnesia"), might we know something they don't?
Boredom may well be physiologically impossible. Instead, gradients of fascination can allow critical discernment to be preserved. Unlike Gian Pablo, "systematic exploration of number space" probably wouldn't be number one on my To Do list. Gazing at gap-toothed bunny rabbits frolicking gives me more joy than contemplating Euler's identity. Fortunately, there should be plenty of time to do both - and more besides.
Thanks Peter. Will experience below “hedonic zero” still exist in the year 3000? We probably agree: what sounds “utopian” in one era can be a taken-for-granted feature of life in the next. If today’s hedonic range is (schematically) -10 to 0 to +10, then a civilization with a hedonic range of +15 to +25 sounds like utopian dreaming – but its members might say the same about envisaging a more advanced civilization with a heavenly hedonic range of +90 to a +100. Either way, one of the reasons for urging hedonic recalibration rather than (super-)happiness is that – while not wholly preference-neutral – hedonic recalibration doesn’t ask anyone to give up their core values, unless their core values include opposition to allowing people to have higher hedonic set-points. That said, I don’t rate the odds of ending suffering by the year 3000 as much better than even.
Chaos theory and ecosystems? Clearly a vast topic. But perhaps compare getting rid of Variola major and Variola minor. In one sense, we could be extremely confident about the precise short- and long- term consequences: no more smallpox. In another sense, the long-term consequences are unknown. Smallpox killed 300-500 million people last century, and the demographic ramifications of increased human population sizes will play out indefinitely. If intelligent moral agents decide to phase out the biological signature of unpleasantness, then we can be very confident of the consequences in one sense - and in another sense, reduced to informed guesswork. In the case of nonhumans, presumably pilot suffering-free ecosystems will be investigated long before anything grandiose and global.
I guess a lot of people would resist the parallel between suffering and a disease. The many faces of suffering - and their genetic underpinning - are hugely more diverse than the causes of smallpox. But whereas language-users can be unhappy "about" many more things than a chimpanzee, I’d argue that the ancient biological wellsprings of misery are effectively the same.
Should we use designer drugs & gene therapies to create life based on gradients of intelligent bliss, or stick to the biological status quo?
("Stronger, smarter, happier - what if a drug could make you a better version of yourself")
The Science of Paradise Engineering?
[on post-Darwinian life]
By a Kurzweilian 2045?
Or hundreds of years from now...?
with many thanks to editor Magnus Vinding.
Can we abolish suffering without using biotechnology? Short of sterilising the planet, I don't see how. And proposing apocalyptic solutions isn't the answer...
I would not be heartbroken to learn that the future of sentience is a billion-year cosmic orgasm. But gradients of intelligent well-being are more saleable to bioconservatives.
Suffering in all its ghastliness will probably be phased out via biotech. But its abolition won't reflect a slackening of selection pressure, but rather its intensification. Whether we use the term "post-Darwinian life" or a variant, a world where intelligent agents design and choose alleles and allelic combinations in anticipation of their likely physical and psychological / behavioural effects is far removed from “blind” natural selection in Darwin's sense. More concretely, let's assume that later this century prospective parents will routinely have the opportunity to choose "low pain" or "high pain" variants of the “pain knob” SCN9A gene for their offspring. Even if the most extreme "low pain" alleles of SCN9A may have carried a modest fitness cost on the African savannah, they will be heavily selected for over "high pain” alleles. Likewise with “hyperthymic” genes, i.e. alleles / allelic combinations that confer a high hedonic set-point and a quality of life to match.
Adam, I promise I'm a card-carrying NU button-presser. For all my fine talk of high-tech Jainism and the sanctify of life, if reality had a clean OFF switch, I'd press it. The suffering in the world is obscene beyond words. But if we are to ensure that suffering doesn't persist indefinitely, we can't take refuge in thought-experiments and OFF buttons. The future belongs to life lovers. Unless we accommodate their wishes, then folk like us are doomed to irrelevance.
* * *
When the true era of "designer babies" dawns, giving your future children (the genetic predisposition to) a high hedonic set-point will be a huge gift. What about existing humans? Although CRISPR gene editing is feasible, "designer drugs" to cheat the hedonic treadmill are probably our best bet for now...
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/meditation-modern-life/201709/your-set-point-happiness ("Your Set Point for Happiness")
The end of suffering will mark a major transition in the evolution of life. But does our genetic source code still hold some nasty surprises?
Can biotechnology abolish suffering (Talk)
Very many thanks to Alex Rose and Exeter Philosophy Society. Topics covered in the lively audience discussion included 100 billion year cosmological orgasms and other staples of philosophy in the analytic tradition.
Can biotechnology make life meaningful?
Jordan, yes, there's an ambiguity in the question. Consider any experience you like. Biotechnology can massively amplify its substrates in the CNS. But whereas almost no one would dispute that biotech can create more pleasure (or redness etc), the idea of mass-producing the molecular signature of finding-things-deeply-significant makes one want to ask whether they will "really" be meaningful in some transcendent sense we can't explain? All I'd say in response is: aren't we in the same boat today with our "peak experiences"? Couldn't a stony cynic say that our "peak experiences" aren't meaningful above-and-beyond themselves? Yes, I guess, but maybe we should aim to phase out the biology of stony cynicism.
Roland, is it technically possible to create life based on gradients of superhuman bliss that doesn't feel superhumanly meaningful too? The pleasure-pain axis seems bound up with a subjective sense of significance. I suspect posthuman life will seem superhumanly worthwhile by its very nature, making scepticism about its value biologically impossible. Amen.
[on cryonics and cryothanasia]
I haven't signed up for cryonics [but see update Feb 2018]. When I'm ready, perhaps in a decade or so, I intend to use cryothanasia. Your best prospect of a successful reanimation is to be suspended in optimal conditions and cognitively intact. Max More has done an impressive job professionalising Alcor. How many of their current patients will be restored? Given the circumstances of their suspension, I don’t know. I hope Alcor and SENS can collaborate in a twin-track approach to tackling the scourge of death and aging. IMO, cryonics should be opt-in rather than opt-out. And if cryothanasia – with rigorous safeguards – were an option too, then the entire program could be self-financing. For millions of people today, the last six months or even six weeks of their existence absorb more medical time, effort and expense than the rest of their lives put together.
That said, I’m inconsistent. On the one hand, anyone with the slightest shed of intellectual curiosity ought to relish the prospect of waking up in the twenty-second or twenty-third century and catching up with scientific progress. Upon re-animation, I’d like to devour a year-by–year chronicle of key events - together with offbeat stuff like an annual dictionary of new words in the English language. On the other hand, will our enhanced descendants / posthuman superintelligence really believe that it’s ethical to reanimate dysfunctional, malaise-ridden primitives from the genetic dark ages? Won’t the whole Darwinian era be accounted best forgotten like a bad dream? Sure, archaic human ills of brain and body will readily be curable. Yet in what sense would a superhappy, superintelligent “DP” be me in anything but name? Given my disbelief in enduring personal identity over time, and strong suspicion that Everettian quantum mechanics is true, I’m sceptical of any claims to metaphysical identity over time - regardless of what criterion of identity we use. Yet such scepticism doesn’t mean that my namesakes wake up each morning in the throes of an existential crisis. Waking up in the year 2200, say, is no different.
Given these reservations, why urge universal access to cryonics? Well, partly because we need to banish the terrible fear of death and aging world-wide. Transhumanists should set an example and practice what we preach. One reason that so many people today are reluctant to back serious funding for radical antiaging research is their (quite justified) sense that they personally aren’t going to make the transition. So the transhumanist message that death and decrepitude are terrible, but you probably belong to the last human generation ever to experience involuntary aging, threatens to undermine painfully assembled rationalisations of why death and aging are good, necessary and natural.
* * *
Our transhuman descendants won't grow old. In the meantime, can we defang death and aging with opt-out #cryonics and opt-in cryothanasia? Has David Pearce signed up for cryonics? * * *
If you were sure you'd wake up, would you like to be put in cold storage for a few centuries?
("Scientists Have Found a Way to Rapidly Thaw Cryopreserved Tissue Without Damage")
Superhappiness, superintelligence or superlongevity: what transhumanist "super" most excites you?
Superlongevity versus superhappiness?
Both mood-enrichment and intelligence-amplification tend to extend healthy lifespans. So if done wisely, the three “supers” complement rather than conflict. And anyone sad they aren’t going to make it should consider cryonics or cryothanasia.
"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." (Orson Welles)
("Study into who is least afraid of death")
What a cruel racket. Opt-out cryonics facilities will be less costly and more respectful.
("Funeral poverty: The crisis for Britain’s poorest that begins the day your loved one dies")
[on quantum Darwinism in the CNS]
How pure is your mind? Quantum Darwinism in the CNS...
The Problem of Definite Outcomes in QM.
Is the brain a quantum computer?
Tim, yes, Darwinian metaphors applied to the CNS aren't new. Gerald Edelman's "neural Darwinism", unkindly nicknamed "neural Edelmanism" by Crick, is the best known:
Zurek's "quantum Darwinism", widely discussed by physicists working on the foundations of quantum mechanics, hasn’t yet to my knowledge been studied closely in the CNS. Zurek himself is no fan of quantum mind. Zurek and other decoherence theorists would presumably say that the same selection mechanism can be used to explain the emergence of robust quasi-classical neurons without the need to posit some non-unitary transformation of the state vector. If this is indeed straightforwardly the case, then we're stuck with the problem of why we aren't classical micro-experiential zombies.
I don't expect anyone who isn't troubled by the phenomenal binding problem (e.g. Tim, Max Tegmark) to take nonclassical solutions seriously. But for anyone who is mystified by phenomenal binding, and yet can't see how fleeting neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors could be anything other than "noise", there is a ludicrously, unimaginably powerful Darwinian selection mechanism to hand - and without invoking any new principle of physics à la Penrose. I don't trust my wordy philosophising. Fortunately, this is an empirical question to be settled experimentally via interferometry.
Tim quite a few researchers over the years have at least wondered if quantum coherence could underpin phenomenal binding. The ultra-rapid decoherence times of neuronal superpositions (Tegmark, Schlosshauer, etc) and the absence of any detailed, credible story at the molecular level intuitively make such ideas hopeless. The vast majority neuroscientists aren't familiar with Quantum Darwinism at all - and insofar as they know the gist, they assume Quantum Darwinism is just a low-level recipe for quasi-classical neurons and hence textbook connectionist neuroscience. Maybe they are right. But here we have a selection mechanism that compresses more selection pressure into every microsecond than is exerted over four billion years of natural selection as Darwin understood. That’s serious power. Has it been harnessed to sculpt our classical world-simulations? Crazy stuff I know.
* * *
Is life, mind and the universe ultimately explained by a single principle? Alas, the derivation is tricky...
What is the most fundamental principle of quantum physics?
* * *
Ray, yes, instead of using the decoherence program to explain the emergence of classical neurons, the insanely powerful selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism is sculpting (neuronal superpositions subjectively experienced as) our world-simulations in the extremely high-dimensional space entailed by the dynamics of the wavefunction. Only a quantum mind can phenomenally simulate mind-independent classicality that emerges - in the weak sense of "emerge" - via the mechanism that Zurek at al propose.
Despite touting the novel interferometric predictions that follow if neuronal "synchrony" is really superposition, I stress there is no new physics here - "quantum Darwinism" isn't new physics either.
* * *
Kushim, the effective lifetime of individual superpositions of neuronal feature-processors in the CNS is femtoseconds or less. The CNS is so warm that phase coherence is for all practical purposes irreversibly lost to the wider environment. I can’t think of any practical mechanism for recoherence. The dynamical timescale of mental processing, including perceptual experience, is normally reckoned milliseconds or more (action potentials, the post-synaptic cascade etc). If one takes the standard “materialist” physicalist view that consciousness (somehow!) arises via such processing, then the sub-femtosecond lifetime of neuronal superpositions excludes them as the source of phenomenal binding. Neuronal superpositions are irrelevant psychotic noise.
However, the view I explore is non-materialist physicalism. Experience discloses the essence of the physical. You and the classical-seeming world-simulation run by your CNS are what “cat states” feel like from the inside.
Even if non-materialist physicalism is true, then we’re naively not much closer to solving the binding problem. Surely, fleetingly bound sentient psychotic noise isn’t much closer to your subjectively experiencing phenomenally bound perceptual objects than fleetingly bound insentient psychotic noise?
Enter quantum Darwinism, not (as one might pardonably suppose) the analogue of Quantum Tarot and Quantum Healing, but the brainchild of one of the pioneers of the decoherence program in post-Everett QM, Wojciech Zurek (cf. What do physicists think of quantum Darwinism?) What happens within the CNS under a regime of selection pressure unimaginably more intense than natural selection as conceived by Darwin? Potentially, here is the secular analogue of a Divine Moviemaker (cf. Paley’s “divine watchmaker” analogy). In my (very) tentative view, your macroscopic world is what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. But I don’t invoke any new physics, just minimal QM. Crazy, I know, but ultimately the non-classical interference signature will tell us, one way or the other.
Derek, I wonder if our background assumptions are different (cf. What is the difference between perception and consciousness?) Yes, I agree that extra-cerebral decoherence occurs long before any neurons fire. Everett branches where neural impulses are consistent with a dead cat differ from neural impulses consistent with a living one. Yet as dreaming attests, retinal activity and impulses from the optic nerve are neither necessary nor sufficient for you to undergo the visual cortical experience of opening a chamber and beholding, say, a live cat a few metres in front of your body-image. When you are awake, peripheral neural inputs don't contribute to the subjective content of your world-simulation any more than they do when you are dreaming. However, when you are awake, inputs from the optic nerve (etc) do tightly select the contents of your world-simulation. Thus when you are awake, the everyday world looks classical and law-governed. It’s still just a mind-dependent simulation run by your CNS, typically scores of milliseconds behind real time. For each of us, as skull-bound minds, the mind-independent world is a theoretical inference, not a given.
Of course, plenty of researchers subscribe to a world-simulationist account of perception (e.g. Steven Lehar, Antti Revonsuo, etc) without entertaining any kind of quantum mind conjecture. But such researchers face the challenge of explaining how a bunch of decohered feature-processing cortical neurons in the CNS can be more than patterns of Jamesian mind-dust – the “structural mismatch” that drives David Chalmers to dualism.
Stop Eating Meat
Thanks Nikola. I've never tasted meat, an accident of birth rather than a badge of superior virtue. More impressive are transhumanists ranging from the late great FM-2030 - who “wouldn’t eat anything that had a mother" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FM-2030) - to my interviewer Nikola who carefully weighed the arguments and then changed their behaviour accordingly. A commitment to the well-being of all sentience (cf. https://hpluspedia.org/wiki/Transhumanist_Declaration) is inconsistent with the existence of factory-farms, slaughterhouses, and industrialised animal abuse. I'd encourage anyone who still eats meat to quit - and also urge any meat-eating friends and colleagues to do likewise.
Outlaw factory-farms and slaughterhouses. By all means grow your own meat, but buying a vegan recipe book is easier.
("Make your own meat with open-source cells – no animals necessary")
Meat eating adversely affects the health of killers and victims alike. The vCJD story:
("Many more people could still die from mad cow disease in the UK")
If ethics weren't an issue, then a vegetarian + fish-based diet rather than veganism or meat-eating would probably be most conductive to human health and longevity. But like weighing the issue of slavery on the improved cardiovascular health vs incidence of back-pain of Aryan slave-owners, we'd be rather missing the point. If we're to see optimal human & nonhuman health and closure of the death factories in our lifetime, then I think in vitro meat is going to be essential.
Peter Singer is right; the profoundly disabled deserve to be loved and cared for almost as much as pigs. Hence the need for global veganism. Let's close and outlaw the death factories.
("Peter Singer Thinks Intellectually Disabled Less Valuable than Pigs Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/445244/peter-singer-thinks-intellectually-disabled-less-pigs")
If anyone here wonders whether these seemingly endless debates about consciousness really matter ethically, perhaps see the below. Rob Bensinger recently wrote a defence of radical eliminativism about consciousness; and influential AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky believes that self-reflective human adults but not babies or nonhuman animals are conscious...
("A Debate on Animal Consciousness")
Should hurting, harming and killing sentient beings be videoed or outlawed?
("All slaughterhouses in England to have compulsory CCTV")
"Animal welfare?" Could butchering human infants and toddlers of comparable sentience be called "child welfare"?
Is the level of pleasure one derives from harming others a morally relevant consideration? For the classical utilitarian, yes, for the negative utilitarian no, but both should support outlawing factory-farms and slaughterhouses.
("Aggressive vegans are putting a quarter of Britons off vegetarianism, study finds")
Transhumanism: technical solutions to ethical problems? Will the ethical revolution in human treatment of nonhuman animals mostly precede or follow the in vitro meat revolution?
The solution to cannibalism isn't to exterminate tribes of cannibals, but dietary reform. Likewise, the solution to predation isn't to exterminate predators, human or nonhuman, but behavioural and/or genetic tweaking. Sentient beings have harmed each other for over 540 million years. Most likely they will harm each other for several hundred years more. A truly civilised world will be vegan. The entire biosphere is now programmable. Knockabout rhetoric aside, philosophers do understand the thermodynamics of a food chain. They also understand CRISPR genome-editing, synthetic gene drives and the principles of cross-species immunocontraception. This isn't an argument for putting philosophers in charge of an ecosystem: a recipe for disaster. IMO, we should now be focusing on shutting factory farms and slaughterhouses. What humans are doing to other sentient beings is obscene. But a civilisation where free-living sentient beings can flourish physically unmolested is technically feasible. Whether we create such a living world is ultimately an ethical choice.
* * *
In future, sentient beings won't harm each other.
Towards a non-violent biosphere
* * *
How should vegans respond to the charge of hypocrisy?
Veganism: some meat eaters worry about plant "pain"; others are concerned about the fate of nonhumans if we stopped factory-farming...
What would happen to nonhuman animals if we all became vegan?
Should the study of mind be an experimental discipline?
And will full-spectrum superintelligence emerge from an "intelligence explosion" in zombie AI or the work of intrepid psychonauts like Andres Gomez Emilsson...?
("Psychedelic Science 2017: Take-aways, impressions, and what’s next")
Psychedelic-induced experiences may be inexpressible within our conceptual scheme. But some people evidently have tamer trips...
("What does an LSD-style drug-induced 'higher state of consciousness' feel like?")
Psychedelics should be taken by the (super)well, not the sick.
("The Long, Hard Road To A Science Of Bad Drug Trips")
Whether we use the language of "qualia", "first-person facts", "subjective experiences", "sentience", "consciousness", "raw feels", "phenomenal experience" (etc), I think the general point stands. If our ordinary understanding of the stuff of the world is correct, i.e. if quantum field theory describes fields of insentience, then we should be p-zombies - on pain of spooky strong emergence. On my (tentative) view, p-zombies can't exist because they are unphysical. But this involves a conjecture about the intrinsic nature of the physical that most people (including me) find hard to swallow.
Swen, in my (tentative) view, consciousness can be explained precisely by known laws. Unlike e.g. Roger Penrose, my physics is boringly conservative. You need to be very clever indeed before even thinking of monkeying around with the unitary dynamics. "Adventurous"? I guess so. But the conjecture that QFT describes fields of sentience is conservative insofar as I assume we're made of exactly the same "stuff" as the rest of the world, albeit unusually organised. The really metaphysically bold move is more common: assuming primordial fields of insentience. Like most people, I find such a metaphysical assumption intuitively plausible. The assumption also gives rise to what is politely known as the Hard Problem, i.e. the empirical evidence isn't consistent with our preferred ontology. Fortunately, interferometry rather than philosophy will determine whether non-materialist physicalism is true. Likewise with Orch-OR.
To stress: this is a conjecture, not an affirmation of faith!
* * *
I love reading physics, but the existence of first-person facts shows physicists don't understand matter & energy.
("Memories of a Theoretical Physicist by Joseph Polchinski")
Unlike traditional panpsychism, non-materialist physicalism is experimentally falsifiable. Is it true? I don't know...
("Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives. Godehard Bruntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla (eds.), Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives, Oxford University Press, 2017)
* * *
Most of the incredulous stares (4.1) focus on how panpsychism makes the fundamental "psychon" of experience preposterously small. But if e.g. Galen Strawson (“Physicalist Panpsychism”: https://www.academia.edu/25420435/Physicalist_panpsychism_2017_draft) is correct that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the incredulous stares might as well focus on how physicalist panpsychism makes the fundamental "psychon" of experience preposterously short-lived. Quite so. But if we accept the preposterous premise, then does the classically insoluble combination problem even arise? (cf. Quantum Mind) I find the idea that subfemtosecond neuronal superpositions underpin our phenomenally bound minds preposterous too. But if one is prepared to swallow physicalist panpsychism, then are they an optional extra - or simply part of the package?
Property-dualist panpsychism is worth distinguishing from non-materialist physicalism, i.e. experience discloses the essence of the physical.
("Philosopher thinks panpsychism ('all matter has mind') is probably true")
[Peter writes: We are able to lose consciousness, so panpsychism is far from parsimonious. General anaesthesia shouldn't work if panpsychism were true."]
Or when we fall into a dreamless sleep, we become micro-experiential zombies - in effect, just aggregates of decohered neuronal "mind-dust".
* * *
Are electrons conscious?
Or reframed, is quantum field theory about fields of sentience or insentience?
Yes, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then consciousness is quantized. But if we conceive of electrons as point particles – or point "psychons" – then can we hope to solve the palette problem? Also, were the superposition principle of QM ever to break down, would physicalism have the resources to solve the binding problem?
How does physicalism tackle consciousness?
The ancient philosophical claim that everything is made of consciousness is unfalsifiable - as it stands.
However, if the proposal that everything is made of consciousness is conjoined with physicalism, then we have a scientifically falsifiable conjecture. Just demonstrate some property of our minds that is irreducible to (ultimately) the quantum field-theoretic formalism of physics and non-materialist ("idealistic") physicalism is not just falsifiable but false.
Various refutations of physicalism have been explored over the years. Purported refutations range from intentionality (the "aboutness" of thought; how can one physical state be "about" another physical state?) to the palette problem (how can rich diversity of conscious experience be reduced to the simple ontology of physics?). But as David Chalmers argues, what on the face it falsifies physicalism most cleanly, including non-materialist ("idealistic") physicalism, is phenomenal binding. The structural mismatch between our phenomenally bound minds and the micro-architecture of the brain can't be bridged. Even if membrane-bound neurons are endowed with a rudimentary consciousness, as panpsychists and idealistic physicalists propose, then all we've created is a micro-experiential zombie composed of pixels of classical mind-dust.
However, if we're doing serious science, then classicality must be derived, not just assumed. (cf. "Decoherence and the Appearance of a Classical World in Quantum Theory": http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783540003908) The binding/combination problem, as standardly stated, simply assumes discrete, decohered classical neurons. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_problem) This assumption seems reasonable. The same decoherence program of no-collapse QM that explains the emergence of quasi-classicality from quantum reality in the mind-independent world (cf. "Quantum Darwinism": https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082.pdf) also explains the emergence of quasi-classical neurons bathed in an environment of cerebrospinal fluid in the skull. If the lifetime of coherent superpositions ("cat states") of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds, then we would have an obvious, empirically verifiable candidate for a perfect structural match between our minds and neurobiology/physics. Superposition is masquerading as classical synchrony, i.e. the firing of neuronal feature-processors. A superposition is an individual state, not a classical aggregate - the proverbial the sum of its parts. If (1) quantum mechanics is complete and (2) non-materialist physicalism is true, then phenomenal binding is inescapable. Conversely, decoherence (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_decoherence) explains phenomenal unbinding.
Of course, this story is fanciful. The lifetime of neuronal "cat states" isn't milliseconds - not even close. It's femtoseconds or less. Multiple sources of decoherence in the CNS can be approximately quantified. Rapid, uncontrollable, thermally-induced decoherence alone rules out coherent neuronal superpositions as a credible explanation of phenomenal binding. Obviously!
Well, yes, obviously. But science doesn't proceed by sharing intuitions of obviousness. Whether like Roger Penrose you believe in a dynamical collapse modification of unitary QM (cf. Orch-OR), or you reckon (like Max Tegmark) that neuronal superpositions are just meaningless psychotic noise, these are empirical claims to be settled by molecular matter-wave interferometry - though Facebook philosophising is more fun. What will its unfakable non-classical interference signature reveal: (1) a perfect structural match, (2) meaningless noise, or (3) some collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics? (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6)
I don't know. Let's find out!
Insipid? Perhaps not...
("What It Is Like To Be A Quark")
* * *
Theo, thanks, just how difficult does a proposed experiment have to be for it not to be a real experiment but just a thought-experiment?
If the scientific community believed we face a stark choice - either accept the Chalmersian structural mismatch argument for dualism or explore "exotic" nonclassical solutions - then I'm moderately confident a detailed protocol could be devised to falsify the conjecture. Sadly this isn't the case.
Right now, most folk would say the idea that our phenomenally bound minds and classical world-simulations are "cat states" is just a crazy "philosophical" opinion, and "quantum Darwinism" is irrelevant to consciousness. They could be right.
* * *
Imagine one were told the solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness - and indeed the binding problem. Would one think, "Ah, how obvious! Now why didn't I think of that!?" Alternatively, would one find the answer unbelievable, or, at the most extreme, unintelligible? I don't know, but I strongly incline to the latter view. Either way, as I tried to indicate in my comment thanking Andres above, we should be tolerant of any proposal - however crazy or implausible - that makes novel, experimentally falsifiable predictions. Intuition and (mere) philosophising has failed.
* * *
Is the universe consciousness is a different question from is the universe conscious?
("Is the universe conscious?")
Does quantum field theory (QFT) describe fields of sentience or insentience? Most scientists tend to be scornful of philosophers, typically with good cause. Yet the assumption that the mysterious "fire" in the equations, the essence of the physical, is non-experiential is a philosophical assertion, not a scientific discovery. Worse, such "materialist” physicalism is inconsistent with the empirical evidence, i.e. the existence of one’s own conscious mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs. Science offers no evidence that one is ontologically special – quite the opposite.
Some thoughts on the article.
1) Property-dualist panpsychism is worth distinguishing from non-materialist ("idealist”) physicalism. Is rudimentary experience somehow "attached" to physical properties, or does rudimentary experience constitute physical properties, namely the solutions to the equations of QFT?
2) "Proto-consciousness". What exactly does this term mean? Few would dispute that consciousness comes in degrees. But are the world's primordial fields devoid of consciousness or not? There is a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between zero experience and minimal experience. If “proto-conscious” is used to mean merely that e.g. fermionic fields have the “potential” to become conscious, just as the carbon atom has the “potential” to form organic biomolecules, then this should be spelled out. Authors aren’t always clear.
3) Property-dualist panpsychism and the conjecture that experience is the essence of the physical should be distinguished from unphysicalist claims like “the universe is self-aware".
4) Both property-dualist panpsychism and non-materialist physicalism should be distinguished from the proposal that “consciousness collapses the wavefunction” and from dynamical collapse modifications of the unitary-only dynamics in general. Many/most contemporary theoretical physicists would probably say that the appearance of wavefunction collapse on measurement is explained by decoherence, i.e. unitarity is preserved. Penrose is out on a limb.
5) What has complexity got to do with consciousness? The stock market, a termite colony, your desktop PC, and the nation state (etc) are complex, integrated information processing systems. If someone says such systems are also unified, self-aware subjects of experience, then such a claim can’t be disproved. But such speculations are inconsistent with physicalism, i.e. no "element of reality” is missing from the formalism of QFT or its generalisation.
My own views were inspired by a philosopher who "turns Kant on his head":
Postscript (Dec. 2016)
("Postscript to review of Michael Lockwood")
Do any footnotes need adding to the scientific world-picture?
Overcoming suffering: do ethics and decision-theoretic rationality coincide?
You Are Them
(by Magnus Vinding) Can one ever escape philosophy...?
Why I Am Not A Philosopher
DP from the beginning
If a "Lego professor of play", why not a chair of Paradise Engineering?
("A university is offering people the chance to be the first ever Lego professor of play")
"Chief Philosophy Officer"?
Perhaps philosophers will soon be earning seven-figure salaries.
("Silicon Valley executives are hiring philosophers to teach them to question everything")
Reductionism rules? Alternatively, wavefunction monism is true, and mathematical physics is about fields of sentience.
("How Things Hang Together")
How marvellous to "wake up" and discover it had all been a bad dream, so to speak...
Can everything we know possibly be false?
Will academic philosophy always be a male-dominated sport for guys who love arguing?
("What is Philosophy's Point? Part II. Maybe It's a Martial Art.
Philosophers sometimes seem more concerned with winning than wisdom")
From the foundations of QM to the Hard Problem of consciousness, science is steeped in (bad) philosophy. Alas, philosophy is often still steeped in (bad) high-school physics.
("What Is Philosophy's Point?, Part 3. Maybe It Should Stick to Ethics")
("Philosophers are the original tech bros")
Modern science - including computer science, is steeped in philosophical presuppositions and background assumptions - some (hopefully) good, some bad.
("Philosophers Push Back. Philosophers react to a science journalist’s critique of their calling")
[on David Chalmers AMA]
David Chalmers AMA
Thanks Pablo. Yes, David Chalmers is justly well known for framing the Hard Problem: why aren’t we p-zombies? (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie) Chalmers is less well known for spelling out the momentous implications for monistic physicalism and the unity of science if we can't solve the phenomenal binding / combination problem even if some form of panpsychism is true. And binding really does seem classically impossible: http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf.
All this philosophising might seem far removed from the purpose of this FB HI group, i.e. to promote phasing out the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of intelligent bliss in all sentient life. Yet we can't hope to act ethically and responsibly if our theory of mind turns out to be catastrophically mistaken. At Tucson in 2010 and 2016 I've argued that classical digital computers can't be phenomenally bound subjects of experience, let alone suffer. So they can’t be harmed like biological minds. But - sanity check - this conjecture could well be mistaken. (cf. http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2756) Therefore before e.g. attempting "mind uploads", or running ancestor simulations, or digitally radiating across the Galaxy, or trying to build superintelligent AGI (etc), we should make sure that we understand the fundamentals of consciousness, the pleasure-pain axis, and phenomenal binding.
Otherwise we might do something really stupid.
* * *
John, yes, I used the USA as an example because one contemporary materialist philosopher, Eric Schwitzgebel, argues that the USA is already a pan-continental subject of experience (“If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”) http://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/USAconscious.htm
The older term is the "China Brain" argument,
not to be confused with Searle's Chinese room.
Roger Penrose? In my view, the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory is potentially good science (even though I think it's mistaken!) because it's experimentally falsifiable. Philosophising aside, molecular matter-wave interferometry will either detect some collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics or it won't. End of story.
So what about explanations of phenomenal binding that don't invoke dynamical collapse and just accept the "bare formalism" of QM? Well, if coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors lasted milliseconds, then we would have a credible candidate for a perfect structural match between phenomenology and physics, “saving the phenomena” and confounding dualists like David Chalmers. Superpositions are individual states, not classical aggregates. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then neuronal superpositions must be phenomenally bound. Decoherence explains phenomenal unbinding...
So why would almost any scientifically informed person think an experiment like 6 is scarcely worth attempting?
Timescales. As your professor would say, theoretical calculations (mine are lifted mostly from Tegmark and Schlosshauer) tell us that the coherence of phase angles of the components of a hypothetical neuronal superposition can’t last for more than femtoseconds or less. The CNS is too hot to be a quantum computer! It's “obvious" that this kind of timescale is at least a dozen orders of magnitude too short to underpin our phenomenally bound minds.
What I'm arguing (together with a bunch of theory about applying Zurek's insanely powerful “quantum Darwinism” to the CNS - https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf) is that we should stop trusting our intuitions about what’s "obvious" and instead focus on designing better experimental protocols. Any scientific theory of conscious mind should be experimentally testable.
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Tim, IMO what's interesting about p-zombies is also what's interesting about micro-experiential zombies - not the sceptical worries, or debate over whether such entities are possible, but rather understanding why we aren't p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies, given what we think we know about the fundamental stuff of the world and the effectively classical nature of neurons. If monistic physicalism is true, then we ought to be able to derive the properties of our phenomenally bound conscious minds - and the egocentric world-simulations they run - from the underlying physics in the same way as we can derive the properties of biological life via the Modern Synthesis. No such derivation seems possible for the properties of phenomenal consciousness - as David Chalmers and many other critics have argued - which leads either to eliminativist denial (e.g. Dennett, the Churchlands, Brian Tomasik, Matt in this group), or dualism (Chalmers).
The tentative, idiosyncratic answer I'd give is that (1) "p-zombies" are impossible because nonmaterialist physicalism is true: p-zombies are unphysical; (2) "micro-experiential zombies” are impossible because decohered classical neurons are an artefact of our temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. Mercifully, this question can be settled experimentally via interferometry.
I share some of your reservations about Penrose's motivations. But surely motivated cognition is endemic – we’re all guilty to a greater or lesser extent. What matters scientifically is that (like all dynamical collapse theories) Orch-OR makes empirically falsifiable predictions and will soon be refuted (or spectacularly vindicated!) My own doubts about whether the superposition principle of QM ever breaks down are more “philosophical” (cf. https://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-universe-exist-Why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing) than technical. I'm also aware that the track record of philosophical intuition isn’t impressive.
Consciousness: how would you answer these four questions?
Raising the Table Stakes for Successful Theories of Consciousness
A lot of scientists would simply lump all four questions together as aspects of The Hard Problem of consciousness that should be quarantined off from the rest of science. This is rather unsatisfactory. Imagine if since classical antiquity we'd just of the "Hard Problem of matter and energy" without troubling ourselves with developing classical or quantum physics.
Thanks Andrés. The gulf in background assumptions between radical eliminativists about consciousness (like Brian, Daniel Dennett or the Churchlands) and non-materialist physicalists who think consciousness is ontologically fundamental is immense. My physicalism.com paper was prompted by David Chalmers’ argument that neither classical nor quantum physics can explain phenomenal binding; therefore we must embrace (naturalistic) dualism. At Tucson - a hotbed of consciousness realists! - I started by asking the audience whether they believed that if the intercommunicating skull-bound minds of the population of the USA were to implement any computation at all, whether they believed a pan-continental subject of experience would thereby be generated. Some responded “yes”, others “no”, and others were agnostic; but no one suggested that the question itself was meaningless because there are no conscious skull-bound American minds in the first instance, merely skull-bound brains!
Given this seemingly unbridgeable gulf, how can we make progress?
Here I'd invoke Popper. Does a conjecture make any novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents AND critics can agree will settle the issue between rival theories? And if not, why not?
Would you rather be sentient or sapient?
How does sentience benefit survival?
Is consciousness fundamental?
Will we ever understand consciousness?
What is the future of mediocre states of consciousness?
* * *
Alternatively, your mind is skull-bound. You think with your brain via the quasi-classical world-simulation it runs...
("You Think With the World, Not Just Your Brain. On the mystery and wonder of extended cognition")
Whether our minds are classical or quantum isn't a philosophical conundrum. It's a conjecture to be (dis)confirmed by molecular matter-wave interferometry.
What's your theory of mind?
* * *
Is consciousness the "fire" in the equations or a late evolutionary novelty?
Does consciousness "emerge?
The Hard Problem of consciousness arises if we suppose quantum field theory is about fields of insentience.
("David Chalmers Thinks the Hard Problem is Really Hard")
Quantum qualia-dynamics? If non-materialist physicalism is true, yes, fermionic fields are consciousness; but consciousness doesn't "collapse the wavefunction".
("Is matter conscious?")
Can consciousness be captured by an equation?
Matthew, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then the master equation of consciousness is neither more nor less complicated than the Lagrangian of the Standard Model (or its generalisation) compactly represented above. We just don't know how to "read off" the textures of consciousness from the solutions.
Of course, non-materialist physicalism may be false. But just as understanding another mystery, why anything exists at all, may turn on correctly interpreting an existing formalism rather than creating a new one, likewise maybe the same is true of consciousness. I don't know.
I wonder if posthuman superintelligence have a stream of consciousness...
Can you think two things at once?
https://www.quora.com/Can-a-human-be-conscious-about-two-thoughts-at-the-same-time Does consciousness serve any evolutionary purpose?
Thanks Geoff. I wonder how many AI researchers (and indeed scientists in general) are implicitly epiphenomenalists - though they may not use the fancy philosophical term for their position. Trillions of words have been written on consciousness. Billions of people take psychoactives. Yet consciousness is supposedly causally and functionally irrelevant to intelligent behaviour.
* * *
("Why I think the Foundational Research Institute should rethink its approach")
Thank Mike. Question. You say, "Indeed, I’d argue that the degree to which you can care about something is proportional to the degree to which you can define it objectively". Could you clarify? Nonhuman animals and prelinguistic toddlers can’t talk about the “neural correlates of consciousness” and so forth. But surely they can care about being in agony or panic-ridden? Caring is built into the nature of the ghastly experience itself, whether the experience is functional for the organism or completely functionless, e.g. chronic neuropathic pain. In other words, isn’t the intensity of the experience what matters rather than the ability to formulate linguistic definitions or identify its possible neurocomputational correlates?
* * *
A TOE that can't explain you is no TOE at all.
("A Theory of Consciousness Can Help Build a Theory of Everything")
Great article. Thanks George. Some comments / questions.
1. Can causality really operate between mere levels of description? Unless dualism is true, presumably consciousness is identical with brain states. But identity isn't a causal relationship.
2. You remark, "The mind doesn’t seem capable of entering into a superposition. It will therefore collapse whatever it apprehends". On the face of it, yes. But what would we really experience if the superposition principle of QM never breaks down in the CNS or anywhere else? Naively, yes, we'd see live-and-dead cats, smeared-out experimental pointer-readings, and an alien world far removed from the well-behaved classical objects described by an approximation of Newtonian mechanics.
However, such a crazy counterfactual assumes an untenable perceptual direct realism. Perhaps instead we should ask: what would we experience if our minds were coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors - edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons (etc) - rather than just a pack of discrete, decohered neurons, just as we are in a dreamless sleep? Maybe only the universal applicability of the superposition principle - not its alleged breakdown - underpins our experience of determinate, phenomenally bound macroscopic objects that may be described by classical physics.
Of course, the idea that the superposition principle of QM holds the answer to the classically insoluble phenomenal binding problem isn't new. Theorists have done the maths. The theoretical lifetime of coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the "warm, wet and noisy" CNS is femtoseconds or less. Thermally (etc)-induced decoherence is ridiculously powerful and hard to control. Intuitively, neuronal superpositions can (at most) be functionless psychotic "noise". No conceivable mechanism exists to sculpt such useless noise into the unified classical world-simulation that one is consciously experiencing right now.
Maybe. Forgive me for here just stating rather than arguing for my own very tentative view. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com) No need to modify the unitary Schrödinger dynamics à la the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory. The same selection mechanism (cf. Zurek's "quantum Darwinism": https://arxiv.org/pdf/1001.0745.pdf) that explains the emergence of quasi-classicality from bedrock quantum reality in the mind-independent world also sculpts fleeting neuronal superpositions of the CNS to simulate the classical world of everyday waking experience. Only quantum minds - not classical neurons - can phenomenally simulate classical worlds.
So suspend disbelief for a moment. Pretend your mind is what a naturally evolved quantum computer feels like "from the inside". Hypothetically, imagine your mind is a classical world-simulation running at quadrillions of coherent neuronal "cat states" per second. How exactly would life feel different from what you are consciously experiencing right now?
I don't know. Presumably experiment, i.e. molecular matter-wave interferometry, not philosophising holds the key.
Quantum mechanics, consciousness and post-truth politics...
Living in a world of your own
* * *
("Phenomenal consciousness is a quasiperceptual illusion: Objections and replies")
No "third path"? I'm not so sure. Also, converting the world to radical eliminativism about consciousness might seem an elegant solution to the problem of suffering. Alas I don’t think it will work.
1) Only the physical has causal efficacy; and we have strong grounds for believing physicalism as enshrined in the Standard Model or its extensions is true.
2) First-person consciousness is real; and e.g. my subjective feeling of frustration at eliminativism plays a causal role in the posting of this comment.
On the face of it (1) and (2) are mutually inconsistent. However, if non-materialist physicalism is correct, both claims are true. Non-materialist physicalists conjecture that experience discloses the essence of the physical – the elusive “fire” in the equations – on whose intrinsic nature physics (i.e. QFT or its generalisation) is silent. Strictly speaking, all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy. In recent years, the best known advocate of non-materialist physicalism - though not under that label - has been Galen Strawson.
As David Chalmers argues, perhaps the biggest challenge for non-materialist physicalism - and for property-dualist panpsychism - is the phenomenal binding/combination problem:
(For what it’s worth, my response is here: http://www.physicalism.com)
Phenomenal binding not a problem for the radical eliminativist about consciousness because there’s nothing to bind.
Rob, if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then what we have been calling "p-zombies" are unphysical. Granted this intrinsic nature, then yes, as you note, we can nonetheless apparently imagine notional worlds where this isn't so – after all, the originator of the "fire in the in the equations” metaphor that we’re using to evoke the mysterious essence of the physical believed that its non-experiential nature was too obvious even to be worth expressly stating, despite his professed mystification about what it might be. Yet are these notional worlds that we seemingly imagine really physically possible - in which case, yes, one might struggle to locate oneself among them - or is arguing for their physical conceivability akin to imagining worlds where water isn’t H2O? What once naively seemed a physical possibility isn't really so at all.
Either way, all I wanted to do above is suggest that it’s too quick to say there is “no third path”. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then phenomenal consciousness does causally determine which assertions we end up emitting. Non-materialist physicalism sounds pretty insane; but so does radical eliminativism or Chalmersian dualism. And the truth may be stranger still. Who knows?!
* * *
When we finally have an explanation for the big "C", how much else of what we think we know will remain unchanged?
Why can't science explain consciousness?
* * *
Is consciousness quantifiable?
If non-materialist physicalism (as explored by e.g. Galen Strawson, me) is true, then presumably the solutions to the equations of physics exhaustively yield the precise values of qualia. So consciousness in all its guises is rigorously quantified by QFT or its generalisation. Consciousness is the essence of the physical: mathematical physics describes symmetry transformations of qualia. However, the lack of any kind of cosmic Rosetta stone to allow "reading off" these diverse values means that psychonauts exploring alien states-spaces of consciousness (not least, "psychedelia") will be reduced to saying lame-sounding things to the drug-naïve like how it’s "ineffable", "inexpressible", etc.
We can go much further with quantifying conscious states on the pleasure-pain axis because they can be “operationalised”. How hard will an organism work to obtain or avoid the pleasant or unpleasant experience induced by a stimulus?. Cross-species behavioural studies, neuroscience, evolutionary genetics, linguistic self-reports and the preferences of opioid drug users for selective full mu agonists all tend to converge. But even here there are desperate methodological problems – not least, our lack of a theory of phenomenal binding.
* * *
Thanks Mike. The bizarre-sounding implication of non-materialist physicalism that mathematical physics is really about patterns of qualia can't obviously be tested / directly experimentally falsified. (cf. the palette problem http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tht3.113/abstract)This is one reason I focus on the binding problem. The implications if non-materialist physicalism is true are no less bizarre. But empirically falsifiable predictions follow. If a perfect structural match between conscious mind and formal physics doesn’t exist, then the entire package falls. Monistic physicalism of any kind – “materialist” or non-materialist - is false. If it’s actually true, then the missing "cosmic Rosetta stone" problem is daunting. Yet at least we’ll know we’re not barking up the wrong tree.
A couple of thoughts about psychological hedonism / valence determinism.
If we combine the God's-eye perspective of physical science with even a crude and exception-ridden version of the pleasure principle - i.e. sentient beings tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, albeit frequently another description - then profound consequences for decision-theoretic rationality follow. The countless complications shouldn’t obscure how biotechnology will soon be able to give all sentient beings what they are after, emotional well-being – once again, often under other descriptions.
On your point about how the emotional valence of experience is affected by all sorts of factors, I'd agree. The “encephalisation of emotion” under pressure of natural selection has been immensely fitness-enhancing. This encephalisation isn't simply the one-way painting of hedonic tone on otherwise hedonically neutral neocortical experiences. Despite this spaghettification of code, yes, I do tend to focus (too?) simplistically on the ancient, non-perceptual limbic system. You mention OCD-behaviours. Doesn't the anticipated pleasure explain their misplaced persistence?
Psychological hedonism / valence determinism isn't the claim that we're rational pleasure-seekers / pain-avoiders.
Or to choose a very different example, co-administer to a subject mu opioid and dopamine antagonists and the most exquisitely rendered symmetries will leave even a world-class mathematician cold. Co-administer mu opioid and dopamine agonists to your reward centres and even extreme asymmetry will look inherently sublime.
Or at least that’s what I’d predict from my armchair.
* * *
The power of ideas: whereas people with Cotard's syndrome believe they are dead, eliminative materialists believe they are zombies - and try to infect the sentient. But some of us have innate immunity.
("Is consciousness an illusion")
Unlike materialism, non-materialist physicalism is consistent with QFT and the empirical evidence. It doesn't rate a mention here though...
("How we can be")
Brian, do you ever have lucid dreams? I ask because with dreaming, we don't get caught up in disputes about the nature of perception. Whether sunsets or symphonies, dreams can be extraordinarily vivid – and everything unfolds within one's transcendental skull. Should awake Dennettian investigators inform a lucid dreamer that (s)he shouldn’t believe in the "Cartesian theatre"? The lucid dreamer can even conjure up a phenomenal theatre in front of his phenomenal body-image - if so requested. A Dennettian can say that this theatre is just an “illusion” created by the brain; but where exactly is this illusory phenomenal theatre if not spatio-temporally located within the dreaming subject’s transcendental skull?
("Saying 'Hi' Through A Dream: How The Internet Could Make Sleeping More Social")
* * *
In the desert, the naive realist will say he can directly perceive an oasis. I would say that I apprehend a phenomenally bound oasis in my visual world-simulation that causally covaries with a mind-independent physical oasis. (Even thirsty philosophers can be long-winded.) Perhaps our guide says that there's actually no physical H2O for us to drink at all; the oasis is just a mirage. But where I really balk is if a Dennettian or other radical eliminativist about consciousness says that none of us even seems to see an oasis, illusory or otherwise - that even the appearance of a patch of water in front of one’s body-image doesn't exist - and neither, for that matter, does one’s phenomenal body-image. Yes, we should bear in mind what Sellars called the "myth of the given", and acknowledge the theory-ladenness of perception. And for sure, the first-person contents of both introspection and perceptual experience/one’s world-simulation can be radically misconceived by the subject. Yet I can't feign anaesthesia to myself. If a Dennettian says my agonising headache can be banished by better philosophising rather than painkillers, then he is the victim of the false ideology of eliminative materialism.
* * *
Elijah, recall there's a sense in which Brian, Dennett, Galen Strawson (and me) agree: all that exists is the physical, and only physical processes have causal efficacy. Where Strawson, I, and any non-materialist physicalist part company with Brian and Dennett is we theorise that subjective experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - and in virtue of being physical, all and only subjective experience has causal efficacy, whether functionally incidental (as in your PC or a lettuce) or otherwise, and whether phenomenally bound or otherwise. Brian and Dennett, on the other hand, can find no place for first-person subjective experience in their ontology, and so bite the bullet: consciousness doesn't exist!
Input-output relations? Natural selection has recruited various kinds of experience, each with its own molecular signature, to play a typical information-signalling role in biological organisms. In many cases, we don't even have a separate word in our vocabulary for the subjective “raw feels” and the typical functional role such subjective experiences play in biological minds. In fancy speech, we distinguish e.g. phenomenal pain from the function of nociception and acknowledge that pain and nociception are doubly dissociable. By contrast, the term “jealousy", for instance, refers to both a functional role and a bunch of characteristic “raw feels”; we don't have even a formal term conceptually to distinguish the two.
For what it’s worth, I reckon the vast majority of possible states of consciousness that matter and energy can instantiate have never been recruited by evolution for any information-processing role. This very absence of function is one reason why the experiences induced by major psychedelics can be so disconcerting. It's not that psychedelics deliver deep truths about the universe, but rather the state-spaces of consciousness that such drugs open up don’t come with any kind of pre-digested conceptual scheme by which psychonauts can navigate their weirdness.
Not a problem for zombies.
* * *
Worms and philosophers have a dopamine & opioid system & a pleasure-pain axis and should be treated accordingly.
("We know we are – but what else is conscious too?")
What's it like to be a cerebellum?
("Study finds testosterone levels influence link between cerebellum density and neuroticism")
Vito, bafflement at the Hard Problem and/or the binding problem of consciousness isn't confined to professional philosophers. It extends to some of the most brilliant scientific minds of our generation (cf. http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/2016/08/physicist-ed-witten-on-consciousness-i.html)
Does Stanislas Dehaene's theory of consciousness make any novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions? If so, it's "risky" in Popper's sense - and potentially good science. But if not...
Waking life is analogous; but natural selection ensures your autobiographical world-simulation is harshly constrained:
("I can control a computer with my mind – from inside a dream")
Can semantics be naturalised if we assume that lucid dreamers (i.e. us) never really "wake up"?
Natural selection doesn't explain consciousness. Your molecular doppelgänger assembled from scratch would be just as sentient.
("'From Bacteria to Bach and Back' by Daniel C Dennett review – consciousness explained? There is no ‘hard problem’ and consciousness is no more mysterious than gravity, Dennett claims in this study of the evolution of minds")
Is insentience useful to a p-zombie? Materialism is false; non-materialist physicalism is (at least) empirically adequate.
Without phenomenal binding, consciousness would be useless. But for classical neurons it's as feasible as telepathy.
* * *
What should be our point of departure? As Edward notes, here is a kind of inverted cogito. Brian, like Daniel Dennett, takes third-person facts as conceptually prior, and the existence of first-person facts is a theoretical inference that one makes. Inferences, however intuitively powerful, can be mistaken. In his latest book, Dennett, just like Brian, is quite explicit: you are a zombie! (page 363)
In my view, this perspective gets everything back-to-front. Any inference you make to a mind-independent physical world beyond your subjective phenomenal world-simulation is a theoretical inference to the best explanation. Some of the information-processing systems in this hypothetical mind-independent physical world are zombies, like AlphaDog or your PC, whereas others are phenomenally bound subjects of experience, like the mind-brains of humans, mice and bumble-bees. This dichotomy between subjects of experience and zombies holds, IMO, regardless whether panpsychism, or a property-dualist theory, or non-materialist physicalism is true.
* * *
Reflective self-awareness: the circle widens. But sentience, not sapience, is what matters...
("Monkeys taught to pass mirror self-awareness test")
Like the nerve ganglia of insects, are our peripheral ganglia miniature subjects of experience?
("Discovery of 'mini-brains' could change understanding of pain medication")
Does "consciousness reside in the connections between multiple parts of the brain"? Or does anaesthesia merely unbind rather then extinguish?
("Here’s What Happens To Your Brain Under Anesthesia")
But in what sense are the nasty raw feels of a headache a "process of inference"?
("The mathematics of mind-time. The special trick of consciousness is being able to project action and time into a range of possible futures")
In my view, phenomenally bound quantum minds, after some 540 million years, evolved a slow, inefficient serial virtual machine capable of conceiving and designing a classical Turing machine: a programmable digital computer. There is simply no way that natural selection can evolve programmable digital computers powering the zombie robots that are increasingly going to outperform us in tasks involving “narrow” AI.
Do you have a brain?
Or still stuck at the starting-block. ("Everyone knows you can't find consciousness in the individual cell")
("Moving Toward Understanding Consciousness")
Or QFT describes fields of sentience, but plants, digital computers, robots (etc) are micro-experiential zombies.
("Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Are Animals Conscious?")
AI: phenomenal binding is impossible for a classical digital computer. Solving Sir Roger's chess problem isn't...
("Can you solve chess problem that holds key to human consciousness")
It's good that sceptics pose concrete challenges rather than just philosophise. ("You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you tell me precisely what it is a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that." - John von Neumann) But the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory of consciousness will be definitively falsified to the satisfaction of proponents and critics alike when interferometry finds no collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics.
Matt, eliminativism just doesn't work. Feelings and illusions are particular kinds of consciousness. If we believe in physicalism and the unity of science, i.e. no spooky "strong" emergence, then we need to derive the properties of feelings, illusions and all other forms of consciousness from the underlying physics. Compare how vitalism has been confounded by the reduction of life to molecular biology, molecular biology to quantum chemistry, and quantum chemistry to the Standard Model.
However, if we make the extremely plausible but contested assumption that the mysterious "fire" in the equations, i.e. the essence of the physical, is non-experiential, then we face the Hard Problem of consciousness. And if we further make the extremely plausible but contested assumption that neurons in the CNS are discrete, decohered classical objects, then we face the Binding Problem. You are not a "micro-experiential zombie" - not unless you're in a dreamless sleep, at any rate, in which case you won't be reading my deathless prose.
* * *
Magnus Vinding defends consciousness realism:
What is our point of departure?
Low AQ folk start by introspecting their own consciousness - from pleasure, pain, core emotions, perceptual experience, thought-episodes, etc - and try to understand other organisms / information-processing systems by analogy. (cf. The Problem of Other Minds.)
High AQ folk start with observing other organisms / information-processing systems, detect patterns in their verbal and non-verbal behaviour - including talk about "consciousness" - and try to understand themselves analogously. In other words, if the behaviour of other organisms / information-processing systems can be physically understood on the assumption they are zombies, then (ultra-high-AQ folk may reason) by analogy I am too.
Are you "a serial processor that can think of only one idea at a time"? Or a massively parallel world-simulation?
("Want To Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears A Question? Questions hijack the brain. The moment you hear one, you literally can't think of anything else.")
* * *
If non-materialist physicalism is true, then experience may be regarded as physicalized mathematics. Posthuman superintelligence should be able to order the menagerie of qualia using the mathematics of symmetry - just as the greats of twentieth century physics created the Standard Model in physics. For sure, non-materialist physicalism may be false and the Hard Problem may be beyond human minds. My objection to "mysterianism" (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_mysterianism) isn't that it's wrong, but rather it's sterile. In any "Shut up and calculate!" versus "Shut up and philosophise!" debate, my sympathies normally lie with scientists. However, one or more totally obvious "philosophical" background assumptions that we're making about consciousness must be mistaken. But which? Above all - and this is a reproach to my younger self - anyone who writes about the Hard Problem should focus on extracting novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions - and not dress up their retrodictions as predictions. Compare Andrés’:
Like most people, my response was "That's insane!" My response should have been, "Fantastic, a falsifiable hypothesis put to the test". Keep them coming.
* * *
Are mini-brains also mini-minds? Or are a pack of autistic or hyper-sociable neurons alike just micro-experiential zombies?
("Mini-brains made from teeth help reveal what makes us sociable")
Literally so, if non-materialist physicalism is true. Otherwise, consciousness mysteriously "emerges".
("Consciousness is made of atoms too")
Psychotic mind-dust? Or rudimentary subjects of experience? Ethical prudence is needed here.
("Stanford scientists assemble working human forebrain circuits in a lab dish")
The challenge is to explain why a p-zombie wouldn't say the same...
("Consciousness helps us learn quickly in a changing world")
Matt, there is a difference between the first-person fact of having a migraine and displaying the spectrum of behaviours commonly associated with migraines while uttering the words "I have a migraine". How first-person facts can arise in a world supposedly devoid of experiential properties is the Hard Problem of materialist metaphysics.
What are the biggest flops of physics theories?
[the materialist reading of] The Standard Model. Any decent scientific theory should be empirically adequate. All one ever empirically knows, except by inference, are the contents of one's own conscious mind. Yet contemporary physics has no explanation of why consciousness can exist at all (the “Hard Problem”) (2) how consciousness could be locally or globally bound by a pack of discrete, decohered, membrane-bound, supposedly classical neurons (the phenomenal binding / combination problem) (3) how consciousness exerts the causal power to allow us to discuss its existence (the problem of causal impotence versus causal over-determination) (4) how and why consciousness has its countless textures and the interdependencies of their different values (the "palette problem").
Any theory of the world inconsistent with one's existence must count as an epic fail.
Solutions? Heaven knows. Perhaps Ed Witten is right (cf. "World's Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can't Crack Consciousness": https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/world-s-smartest-physicist-thinks-science-can-t-crack-consciousness/). My own best guess is that wavefunction monism is true; no "element of reality" is missing from the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory or its extension; but the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics should be transposed to an idealist ontology.
"Extremely implausible” (David Chalmers); and of course, I agree.
* * *
But fields of what exactly? ["What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" - Stephen Hawking] Intuitively, the intrinsic nature of the physical - i.e. the "fire" in the equations of QFT - is something non-experiential which (somehow) gives rise to consciousness. However, it’s worth stressing that this non-experiential nature is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific discovery.
A physical theory can be mistaken in two ways. It can fail accurately to predict e.g. the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, or the Lamb shift, or whatever. But a theory can also be mistaken if it gets its ontology wrong, e.g. luminiferous aether. The Hard Problem of consciousness arises on the assumption we have our basic ontology right, i.e. that the mathematical formalism of quantum physics is about fields of insentience - whatever that may be.
* * *
A nice review of IIT. More generally, When one's theory is at odds with the empirical evidence, should one grant it's false? Or speak of the Hard Problem?
("'The Problem with the ‘Information’ in Integrated Information Theory' by Garrett Mindt")
Consciousness: any acquaintance with psychedelics cures the illusion that one knows what one is talking about.
Is quantum consciousness a phenomenon?
In fairness, any acquaintance with a serious textbook on quantum field theory cures the illusion that one knows what one is talking about too. But I don't think a solution to the mysteries of consciousness lies in modifying the formalism of QFT - rather in understanding what the formalism means for our phenomenal minds.
Rob, yes, "Quarantine" is a great novel, though based on some highly idiosyncratic physics. It's worth stressing that one can believe our minds are quantum phenomena, and indeed that consciousness is fundamental in Nature, without buying into "consciousness collapses the wavefunction" stuff. Decoherence is a fast, smooth, dynamical process that can explain the appearance of discontinuous wavefunction collapse, while global unitarity is preserved.
Does Nature need civilising or "re-wilding"? Why are humans so fond of predators? Mathematical physicist and wilderness enthusiast John Baez...
("Restoring the North Cascades Ecosystem")
Do we really want a living world where sentient beings hurt, harm and kill each other – and where predators disembowel, asphyxiate and eat their victims alive? The CRISPR revolution in biotech, synthetic gene drives, and the explosive growth of IT mean the entire biosphere will shortly become programmable. What is the optimal burden of suffering in Nature? For the first time in history, intelligent moral agents will shortly be able to choose. No, I’m not suggesting that we embark on a Five Year Plan to veganise the living world and roll out the costly cross-species fertility regulation that compassionate stewardship would entail – not yet anyway. But we should think long and hard before actively promoting “re-wilding” – and human or nonhuman predators.
John, I share your dark views about what humans are doing to the planet. But does “rewilding” call for any less wisdom than compassionate stewardship which aims to minimise the burden of suffering in the living world?
On your technical points, yes, phasing out or genetically tweaking predators is recipe for Malthusian catastrophe – if taken on its own. But if combined with e.g. cross-species immunocontraception to regulate population sizes, then the ecological sustainability of a non-violent biosphere needn’t be an issue. And the crazy thing about using CRISPR-based synthetic drives is that if intelligent moral agents want to “fix” genes for e.g. low pain-sensitivity across entire sexually reproducing species, then this compassionate intervention can work even if the allele(s) in question carry a fitness cost to the individual. Gene drives “cheat” the laws of Mendelian inheritance and natural selection as traditionally understood.
Yellowstone? Wolves eat their larger victims alive. More generally, predators promote a “landscape of fear”. There are more civilised ways to run an ecosystem than starvation and predation – IMO.
John, I completely agree with you about the need for extreme caution. But later this century and beyond, every cubic metre of the planet will be computationally accessible to surveillance and micromanagement. Do we want a living world where sentient beings harm each other or not? If intelligent moral agents opt for a living world without starvation and predators, we’re not going to run out of computational resources. Ultimately the level of suffering in the post-CRISPR biosphere is an ethical question.
Humans can be worse. We're also the only species able to reprogram the biosphere and end the Darwinian holocaust.
("This gory subreddit shows just how brutal nature is — and I love it")
* * *
1) Concrete suggestion. Does anyone feel able to put together a Wild Animal Suffering FAQ?
("What about predators?" "Won't there just be a population explosion?" “How can I contribute”? etc)
The entire biosphere will shortly be programmable - and that programmability includes choosing the optimal level of suffering (cf. https://www.gene-drives.com) Animal advocates don't need a blueprint at their fingertips. But we can have an intelligent ethical debate on nonhuman animal suffering only when more people recognise that the level of suffering in the living world really is - or at least will shortly become - under our control. I'm personally sceptical that humans will seriously contemplate compassionate stewardship of Nature before factory-farms and slaughterhouses are shut and outlawed, most likely in the wake of an “invitrotarian” revolution rather than a transition to strict global veganism. However, some bioethicists urge “re-wilding” and devoting resources to traditional conservation biology - initiatives that will only make the problem of free-living animal suffering worse.
2) Cosmic rescue missions vs C.S Lewis (“Let's pray that the human race never escapes Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere”)? No, we can't rule out the possibility that pain-ridden Darwinian life has evolved elsewhere within our cosmological horizon - and might do so again. But the “thermodynamic miracle” (Eric Drexler) of life's origin makes “Rare Earth” scenarios increasingly credible. In my view, (trans-)humans, or the AIs that we create, are more likely to terraform and "print out" life - including suffering life - on other worlds than practise cosmic philanthropy. This risk is another reason to have the ethical-ideological debate on the future of suffering – including free-living animal suffering - now rather than take it for granted that sentience should radiate across the cosmos when technology allows.
* * *
Does ill-conceived ideology or moral apathy cause more suffering?
Hitler and Henriette
* * *
Tackling free-living animal suffering isn't realistic while humans are systematically harming nonhumans in factory-farms and slaughterhouses. But if we make the optimistic assumption that the death factories can be shut within decades (the in vitro meat revolution), then the problem is computationally tractable with existing technologies. Pilot studies would need to come first. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2) A combination of cross-species fertility regulation (via immunocontraception) and synthetic gene drives (https://www.gene-drives.com) promoting e.g. "low pain" alleles (cf. https://www.wired.com/2017/04/the-cure-for-pain/) could create a minimal suffering ecosystem. Gene drives, IT and fertility regulation are a recipe for cheap compassionate biology later this century and beyond
* * *
Sentient beings eating each other: Darwinian life is hell.
("Spiders eat twice as much animal prey as humans do in a year")
Cross-species immunocontraception, let alone veganising the post-CRISPR biosphere, is hard, but overcoming status quo bias is harder still.
("Consistent Vegetarianism and the Suffering of Wild Animals")
Darwinian life has always been nasty, brutish and short. Reprogramming the biosphere can make life beautiful, civilised and long.
("Baby Dinosaurs Were Born into a World of Danger")
"Revive and restore"?
Should pain-ridden Darwinian life be recreated, conserved or replaced by something better?
("Revive & Restore")
[on the brain]
Same neurons, new microglial housekeepers. Would you notice the difference?
("'Housekeepers' of the brain renew themselves more quickly than first thought")
LSD: consciousness should be investigated by life-loving psychonauts, not the depressed.
("LSD to Cure Depression? Not So Fast")
Do the billions of extra neurons in male brains contribute additional sentience, albeit not to the level of whales.
("Here’s the Biggest Study Yet on the Differences Between Male and Female Brains")
Depression is a cancer of the mind and a overgrowth of the neocortex. When can medical science design smart euphoriants?
("Study finds brain architecture alters to compensate for depression")
If we make the plausible assumption that (in the ancestral environment) the behavioural suppression of depression was adaptive (cf. rank theory of depression: https://www.biopsychiatry.com/depression/), then thinking and introspecting a lot was probably fitness-enhancing. Today psychiatrists call such excessive thought "ruminating". The "hypercholinergic frenzy" theory of depression proposes that low mood is associated with an overactive cholinergic system. This is one reason why melancholic depressives should be cautious about using cholinergic "smart drugs" / nootropics. Likewise, choline supplementation can also subdue mood. See too:
("Bacteria May be Reason Some Foods Cause Heart Disease, Stroke")
Combating depression: sleep discipline / chronotherapy can complement optimal nutrition and aerobic exercise.
("Yes, Your Sleep Schedule Is Making You Sick")
SAD: mood, light and darkness:
("Is the dark really making me sad?")
But the only long-term solution is rewriting our ghastly genetic source-code - together with the rest of Darwinian life.
("What does it mean to be human?")
Over-expressing the Slc6a15 gene in the nucleus accumbens may help everyone feel "better than well".
("Low gene expression may raise susceptibility to depression")
Right hemispherectomy has never been used to treat severe depression, but the operation would probably be effective:
("Depression and the hyperactive right-hemisphere")
Various neurological disorders are associated with a recalibrated hedonic set-point. Dementia can involve apathy/depression, but other cases involve chronic disinhibition/euphoria. Perhaps this isn’t surprising; recall how neuroscanning suggests that during orgasm much of the neocortex effectively shuts down.
Antidepressants: selective, orally active kappa antagonists are promising mood-brighteners for both depressives and the "normally" malaise-ridden. Kappa is the "nasty" opioid receptor.
Pitfalls? We shall see...
("Cerecor Reports Encouraging Topline Data from a NIH Sponsored Proof-of-Concept Trial of CERC-501 in Treatment-Resistant Depression")
Yes. I'd be interested to see the effects of combining the full mu and delta opioid receptor agonist tianeptine, a proven antidepressant (cf. https://www.tianeptine.com/tianeptine-mu.pdf)
with a selective kappa opioid antagonist like JDTic or CERC-501:
Shea, sadly yes. Alas psychological pain doesn't have the equivalent of the SCN9A pain "volume knob" which could make creating a "low pain" civilisation (relatively) genetically straightforward.
Even now, however, we could load the genetic dice in our children's favour without resorting to drugs (cf. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/35/15079.full)
and (in a decade or two?) start self-editing our own nastier bits of code.
Dark moods that can be "embraced" are less severe. Either way, let's genetically eliminate low mood.
("Feeling bad about feeling bad can make you feel worse. Embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better in the long run, psychologists find.")
Purging the genome of nastier variants of NKPD1 might lift global mood, but many genes are implicated in depression
("Depression could be linked to single gene, say Dutch scientists")
Twin studies suggest strong genetic loading, and nonhuman animal "models" confirm the genetic link. But it's horrendously complicated.
("Researchers Question Link Between Genetics and Depression")
See too: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265 (COMT), 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), etc.
Glyoxalase 1 inhibitors are mood brighteners; but the field of antidepressant research is littered with blighted hopes that led nowhere.
("Mouse study provides target for development of faster-acting antidepressant medications")
Sentient beings should be genetically engineered for lifelong bliss.
("Depression the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, WHO finds")
Tempting in this god-forsaken world. But excessive sleep and disrupted biorhythms can worsen melancholic depression...
("Why all your friends are taking depression naps. A popular new meme involves mental illness coping strategies.")
SAD: an international program of annual migration could spare millions of sufferers from seasonal affective disorder:
("It’s Not Just ‘Winter Blues’: What I’ve Learnt About Seasonal Affective Disorder")
"Always embrace negative emotions" vs genetically engineer a biology of superhuman bliss.
A tough one.
("The Zen of Sadness: Why You Should Always Embrace Negative Emotions")
[on the binding problem]
[Darren writes] "One of my tutors, who runs a lab studying minimal perception, says that the solution to this problem is that there is no binding, i.e. We are indeed micro-experiential, but manifestly not zombies."
Intriguing. In one sense, I can understand such an incredible view - because as normally posed, the binding problem is insoluble on pain of magic. People sometimes ask, inconclusively, "What is consciousness for?" Perhaps a more apt question is "What is phenomenal binding for?" Here at least we can give compelling answers. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simultanagnosia) Unfortunately, showing that phenomenal binding is fitness-enhancing is not an explanation of how it's possible. Telepathy would be fitness-enhancing too. If our neurons are classical, phenomenal binding is no less unphysical than telepathy. By contrast, if one starts from the assumption that the superposition principle of QM never breaks down, then one gets a different answer. Superpositions are individual states, not classical ensembles. But decoherence times of neuronal superpositions in the CNS are so insanely rapid, I can understand why few people take this solution seriously.
Any full story will have to embrace evolution in Darwin's sense and Zurek's. One reason for not treating sub-femtosecond decoherence timescales as the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind is that here we have the most powerful selection mechanism the human imagination has ever conceived. The phenomenal binding/combination problem, as usually framed in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, presupposes discrete, distributed, classical neuronal feature-processors. But the alleged classicality of neurons shouldn't simply be assumed; it must be derived from quantum physics.
* * *
The 320 million individual skull-bound minds of the USA aren't a pan-continental subject of experience, nor even an illusory pan-continental subject of experience, nor a pan-continental subject of experience with multiple drafts, nor a pan-continental subject of experience that merely believes it’s conscious (etc etc). Zilch. Or rather, zilch if monistic physicalism is true: as soon we allow "strong" emergence, anything is possible. The challenge is to show why and how a pack of membrane-bound neurons is different: a pan-cerebral subject of experience.
The normal way to pose the binding/combination problem assumes perceptual direct realism – i.e. exposed brains are cheesy wet lumps of neural porridge and light microscopy reveals they are composed of a pack of classical neurons. This conventional approach highlights the discrete, distributed neuronal feature-processors (colour-, motion-, edge-(etc)detectors) synchronously activated by the presentation of different perceptual stimuli as revealed by neuroscanning and microelectrode studies. How does mere synchronous activation somehow get transmuted into phenomenal unity?
As so framed, phenomenal binding is classically impossible.
Instead, start from quantum field theory. Then attempt to derive via the decoherence program in QM an approximation of discrete, decohered classical feature-processing neurons behaving over seconds and milliseconds just as textbook connectionist neuroscience and learning algorithms suggest. In a deep coma or a dreamless sleep, your CNS can indeed be crudely described as though it were a pack of 86 billion classical neurons. However, when you’re awake or dreaming, then - I conjecture - interferometry at fine-grained temporal resolutions will show the non-classical interference signature of well-defined phenomenally bound perceptual objects of the world-simulation in your skull. Interferometry experiments are technically demanding. Yet such experiments are easier to perform if we know precisely what we're looking for - or rather, if we know the specific conjecture that we're trying to refute. I don't blame Vito or David Chalmers (“extremely implausible”) for being dismissive. But if we’re not prepared to experiment as well as philosophise, then we'll be having the same inconclusive debates for ever.
* * *
Cool pictures. But not mind maps. A pack of decohered classical neurons would be a micro-experiential zombie...
("Mind maps: the beauty of brain cells – in pictures")
Bees: running real-time phenomenal world-simulations is the greatest cognitive achievement of post-Cambrian life.
("How insects like bumblebees do so much with tiny brains")
The mind-brain of a bee is sesame-seed-sized: it runs world-simulations, uses language, and solves complex problems. Perhaps programmable digital zombies will soon be able to compete.
("Bees learn to play golf and show off how clever they really are")
Invertebrate psychotherapy isn't imminent, but humans typically underestimate insect minds.
Wasp offspring found to take on the personality of the queen
* * *
More robust commonsense from @webmasterdave....
Through what mechanism could consciousness be causally effective?
Among theorists who propose any kind of causal role for consciousness invoking quantum theory, the “collapse of the wavefunction” , i.e. the supposed non-unitary transformation of the quantum state vector at on measurement into a determinate classical state, has been the most popular candidate – together with various kinds of instrumentalism / anti-realism. By contrast, Everettians who favour the unitary-only dynamics tend to be realists and “materialist” physicalists.
I agree about the unitary dynamics, observer-independent realism and the physicalism. But like e.g. Galen Strawson, I differ over the intrinsic nature of physical that the formalism describes. Surprisingly, one of the hardest challenges I’ve found isn’t arguing over the foundations of QM, but rather persuading some very smart people that phenomenal binding is a conundrum for any kind of physicalist. Consider a Mexican wave. Imagine someone who says that a Mexican wave is a unitary, phenomenally bound subject of experience because its constituents are individually conscious and binding “weakly” emerges from their behaviour. No “strong” emergence here. What’s the problem!?
I’d like to think I’m not doing justice to debunkers of the binding problem like Max Tegmark. But his dismissal is extraordinarily brisk.
* * *
What is something you believe that nearly no one agrees with you on?
Tim, indeed: the mind/brain couldn't factor even small numbers until a few million years ago. Even prodigious mental calculators today can’t cope with more than relatively modest numbers. How our massively parallel neural architecture generates the slow, inefficient virtual machine that each of us experiences as serial, logico-linguistic thought is a deep and unanswered question. But what's clear is that our minds aren't quantum Turing machines - universal quantum computers. However, if non-materialist physicalism is true - a huge "if" - then what quantum computers can do is phenomenally bind. By itself, binding might not seem to amount to much. Most forms of phenomenal binding are utterly psychotic. Yet the capacity on the African savannah to experience an advancing pride of lions within your unified world-simulation confers a distinct reproductive advantage over being a pack of neuronal mind-dust. Without binding there is no "you" either.
Worth stressing again: no new physics here. Each individual neuronal superposition of distributed feature-processors is legal - indeed mandatory - according to no-collapse QM. And critically, a selection mechanism (i.e. Zurek's quantum Darwinism) so powerful that it beggars the imagination.
* * *
Thanks Stuart. What is the smallest physically possible “psychon" of experience - the most minimal, self-intimating fleck of what-it's-likeness from which phenomenally bound minds could ever be built? If non-materialist physicalism is true, then presumably the “psychon” is of Planck-scale dimensions, i.e. very small indeed. But to feel the force of the phenomenal binding/combination problem, it's not necessary to enter into such deep philosophical waters. Just allow - as microelectrode studies using awake human subjects tend to confirm - that individual membrane-bound neurons in your CNS can sustain rudimentary pixels of experience: for example, a fleeting speckle of micro-redness, a brief faint hiss of sound, etc.
Some philosophers have denied the conceptual possibility of "ownerless" experiences. Allegedly, we can't create pain or pleasure or redness in a test tube; experiences must “belong” to a person. Here I'd beg to differ. In the case of test-tube neurons, the hypothetical self-intimating experiences in question aren’t "owned" by anything or anyone but themselves.
One powerful constraint on our theory of consciousness and binding should be the mathematical straitjacket of physics. If physics is causally closed, then only the physical has causal efficacy. So if you don't believe that non-materialist physicalism is true - perhaps you're a panpsychist property-dualist - then you need to explain how and why consciousness can play a causal-functional role in our talking about its existence, varieties and phenomenal binding – as we’re doing now.
* * *
Alternatively, both digital computers & classically parallel connectionist systems are micro-experiential zombies.
("Can We Quantify Machine Consciousness")
How do you bind the mind of a mouse?
("Giant Neuron Found Wrapped around an Entire Mouse Brain. 3-D reconstructions show a "crown of thorns" shape stemming from a region linked to consciousness")
* * *
Stuart, I reckon for most of the past 540 million years the minds of organic robots have functioned as quantum computers running classical world-simulations. But somehow - and it’s a very deep question how - serial virtual computers evolved within the minds of one species of primate – experienced “from the inside” as your logico-linguistic stream of thought. The big difference between mainstream connectionist neuroscience and my idiosyncratic perspective is that, on the standard story, the massive neural parallelism of the past 540 million years is merely classical. This assumption spawns the phenomenal binding problem as normally posed.
QM? I've tried to flag anything a physicist would object to. But what's "weird" isn’t my physics – I take the “bare formalism” of QM as read - but the idea that (currently hypothetical) sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions could have any conceivable relevance to your conscious mind. Perhaps see section 6.2. of quantum mind critic Maximilian Schlosshauer:
Frustratingly, Max Tegmark, who like Schlosshauer is sympathetic to "no-collapse" QM, doesn't believe that there is a phenomenal binding problem in the first instance – the very mystery that drives David Chalmers to dualism. Below I quote Tegmark verbatim:
See what you think.
My own intellectual development?
Oversimplifying, transhumanism can be thought of the aim of building a “Triple S” civilisation of superlongevity, superhappiness, and superintelligence.
In my early teens, I read Robert Ettinger's "The Prospect of Immortality"
A cure for aging seemed unlikely in my lifetime. So I resolved to sign up for cryonics.
As a third-generation vegetarian, I was also concerned about the plight of nonhuman animals. When our family guinea-pig Snowdrop died shortly after giving birth, I wanted her preserved in our freezer - an idea unfortunately vetoed by my mother.
The main focus of my work has been the problem of suffering. Again from teenage pop-science reading, I encountered the work of Olds and Milner – and in particular, their discovery in 1954 of what for several decades were called the "pleasure centres". I recall being struck at how intracranial self-stimulation (cf. wireheading) showed no tolerance. I also learned about the negative feedback mechanisms of hedonic treadmill and the idea of hedonic set-points. Antidepressant drugs – if they work as advertised - lift the low hedonic set-point of depressives to normal "euthymic” levels. I’ve always had a low hedonic set-point. What if it were possible to create designer drugs to “cheat” the hedonic treadmill and give all of us a wonderful life based on information-sensitive gradients of intelligent bliss, i.e. not wireheading, but intelligent superhappiness? Back in my teenage years and my twenties, my focus was more on drugs than genetics. I had only the haziest notion that radical hedonic set-point elevation would be possible in the 21st century via genetic engineering. The human genome hadn't been decoded, and the association of particular alleles and allelic combinations (cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17687265) with high or low hedonic set-points was unknown, though inferable from twin studies.
Anyhow, in late 1995 I wrote an online manifesto, The Hedonistic Imperative (HI), advocating the use of biotechnology to abolish suffering throughout the living world. I set up BLTC Research shortly afterwards. At that time (1997), Nick was a philosophy postgrad in London. Nick read the manifesto. He emailed several astute questions. Later we met up. I harangued a sceptical Nick into getting a website. Nick then sounded me out about setting up a kind of umbrella organization for transhumanists. Critically, Nick overcame my doubts about whether overcoming suffering is really at the heart of a transhumanist agenda: I associated transhumanism with the “dynamic optimism” of the American west coast, extropianism, and free-market fundamentalism. My own sympathies lie with a welfare state for bunny rabbits.
On the third “S” of transhumanism, the creation of posthuman superintelligence, I’m afraid my early thoughts on the prospect of intelligence-amplification were quite jejune – just the product of playing around with nootropics (“smart drugs”). Like many people, I hadn’t thought through the implications of recursive self-improvement combined with the explosive growth of computer processing power.
The Biointelligence Explosion is a more recent effort - alas still written before I could draw on the insights of Nick's magnificent "Superintelligence".)
The most "primitive" forms of consciousness are typically the most intense. So the implications of our being wrong are ethically catastrophic.
("A Virtue of Precaution Regarding the Moral Status of Animals with Uncertain Sentience")
Simon, thanks, as you rightly argue, focus on character can complement - rather than conflict with - focus on acts. Indeed, a stronger claim would be that what is sometimes called "indirect" utilitarianism is really just utilitarianism - properly construed. As you know, I hope for a future of high-tech Jainism - despite the intuitive absurdity of doing the equivalent of brushing the ground in front of one's feet to protect humble life-forms.
Let's systematise compassion across the tree of life.
("Injured baby elephant receives hydrotherapy to help her walk again")
Cannabis: should drug-naive scientists and philosophers of mind embrace the experimental method, or stick to theory?
("World's leading marijuana expert says he has never smoked a joint") THC: a potential smart drug for aging humans?
("Marijuana's Mind-Altering Compound May Improve Memory")
[on synthetic gene drives]
"The problem with the gene pool is that there's no lifeguard." (David Gerrold)
Yes, this is one of the view fields of knowledge where I'd urge responsible self-censorship, at least until proper safeguards /countermeasures have been thought through. Unfortunately such "defensive" knowledge could itself - potentially - be highly dangerous. IMO we should support the WHO-sponsored use of gene drives as the only realistic way to eliminate vector-borne disease and (eventually) create a sustainably happy biosphere. Yet we can’t discount the possibility of a man-made global catastrophe.
Conservation biology masquerades as a science. It's an ideology promoting the horrors of Darwinian life.
("Researchers quantify in high speed a viper's strike in nature for the first time")
Should the biosphere be programmed? And if so, what level of suffering is optimal? (cf. gene-drives.com)
("Organisms created with synthetic DNA pave way for entirely new life forms")
Should we create CRISPR dogs and CRISPR people? Or conserve a traditional biosphere of misery and malaise?
("Would You Want a Dog That Was Genetically Engineered to Be Healthier?")
CRISPR: life is typically nasty, brutish & short. Should we promote conservation biology or compassionate biology?
("The Unimaginably Violent World of Dinosaurs. 'It's just chaos. Everything from three meters down is just destruction'")
Should your genetic make-up be proprietary code or open source? What should be regulated are CRISPR-based gene-drives (cf. gene-drives.com) But how? If you know what you're doing, synthetic gene drives can be anonymously launched with minimal accountability.
("Do We Need an International Body to Regulate Genetic Engineering?")
CRISPR: civilising the Darwinian biosphere means tweaking predators, parasites, carnivorous plants, deadly trees...
("This Tree Appears to Kill Birds Just for the Heck of It")
[on the meaning of life]
Will the Meaning Of Life be resolved by philosophy or biopsychiatry?
Does anything really matter?
Why dissolve it? The question causes many people much angst. But yes, contemplated in posthuman paradise, it's fine. On the other hand, in posthuman paradise, I wonder if the answer may not be self-intimating...? (cf. "Are people who always seem happy just pretending to be happy all the time?" https://www.quora.com/Are-people-who-always-seem-happy-just-pretending-to-be-happy-most-of-the-time)
* * *
Thanks David. Two questions here, one empirical and one metaphysical.
First, if we phase out the biology of suffering, will life feel meaningful? Might our descendants spend lives of just so-called “empty” hedonism?
Perhaps our best clue is the pathology of euphoric mania today. People who experience euphoric mania not merely describe the experience as more intensely enjoyable than taking any euphoriant drugs: they invariably experience a deep sense of significance, meaning and purpose. Messianic delusions are common. In a healthier vein, ”hyperthymic” people with a naturally high hedonic set-point never report, “I feel blissfully happy, but my life feels empty”. Conversely, people with a low hedonic set-point tend to feel their existence is empty and meaningless – feelings which can slide into the nihilistic despair of suicidal depression.
However, it’s the second, “philosophical” question about meaning that may be harder to answer. Empirically, life animated by gradients of intelligent bliss will feel superhumanly significant. Yet will it “really” be meaningful? Influenced by the prestige of science, a lot of intellectuals tend to relegate first-person facts to second-rate ontological status – or even, in the case of extreme eliminative materialists like Dennett or the Churchlands, to deny first-person facts altogether. The dominant technology of an era proverbially shapes its root metaphor of mind. Our dominant technology is this digital computer. Digital computers aren’t conscious. So maybe, the eliminativist wonders, I'm not really conscious either! Admittedly, trying to deny one’s own consciousness is an extreme response. But if you look at the austere ontology of physical science as normally conceived, there doesn’t seem room for beauty or humour or colour or music or the phenomenal self – or meaning. Atoms and molecules aren’t coloured, let alone superstrings or wavefunctions or state vectors. “Sure”, says the materialist, “you may find your life and experiences subjectively meaningful. But it’s just an illusion, a trick played by your brain to help leave more copies of your genes. All that really exists is matter in motion.” Or something like that.
My response here, though not unique, is idiosyncratic. As a non-materialist physicalist, I reckon that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Anything you experience is just as much a real, objective, causally efficacious feature of the natural world as photosynthesis or the Higgs boson. If superhappy posthuman life feels profoundly meaningful, then it will be profoundly meaningful – and beautiful, and funny, and whatever other wonderful first-person states posthumans choose to create.
* * *
John, an intense sense of meaning is built into some experiences as part of their very nature. A profound sense of significance may be built into the fabric of superhappy posthuman life. As malaise-ridden Darwinian humans, we may yearn for transcendent significance - whatever exactly that may be. But if you'll forgive me for just recycling a slogan I sometimes use: take care of happiness, and the meaning of life will take care of itself.
What is a quantum mind?
Consciousness and perception
Where do we perceive the outside world?
One reason we often talk past each other is unwittingly holding different background assumptions. I was flabbergasted awhile ago to learn that Galen Strawson - one of the few fellow non-materialist physicalists I know of - is also a direct realist about perception. If you believe that (when awake) we each somehow share direct access to the rest of the physical world, including e.g. a partly exposed brain on a neurosurgeon’s operating table, then you will ask a different set of questions than if you believe each of us is running a real-time conscious world-simulation that tracks the mind-independent world. (“The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” etc)
Few people write papers defending perceptual direct realism: https://www.academia.edu/3242047/Real_Direct_Realism_2015
But equally, few people talk of e.g. “the world-simulation one’s CNS is running” rather than of perceiving one’s local surroundings. If our world-simulations matched, then this omission wouldn't matter. But evolution has warped our world-simulations ("perception") in many fitness-enhancing ways. For a start, reality is centred on me. The centre of the universe follows me around. Believing I'm not special involves denying the evidence of my own senses. In some sense, one knows that the egocentric illusion is just a genetically adaptive lie. But one isn't actively entertaining this thought all the time. And among people who are clinically manic, messianic delusions are common.
Overcoming the egocentric illusion is part of becoming transhuman and then posthuman - and it won't be easy.
Craig, agreed, no physical state is literally "about" another state. Semantic reference is functional rather than literal. But when one is lucid-dreaming, for instance, it's natural to say that the world in one's head is a simulation. Perceptual direct realists believe that, on waking, their dreaming world-simulations are replaced by direct access to the mind-independent local environment. World-simulationists, on the other hand, believe that the role of the extra-cranial environment is merely to select the contents of one's world-simulation. Being skull-bound makes for a lonely life.
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"What if a square mesh of XOR gates *are* conscious?? After all, they do have quite the "repertoire" of highly-integrated subjective states."
Mark, thanks, yes. However, there's an ambiguity here...
Are you talking about a bunch of physical diodes, vacuum tubes, transistors (etc)? Or are you talking in the abstract about an idealised device that implements Boolean functions? Abstract objects don't have real subjective first-person properties. Of course, it's highly useful for us to be able to conceive abstract objects as real. We can then speak of "implementing" them in different substrates - and act accordingly. Yet if physicalism is true, only the physical is real - and physical reality has only one level. The properties of this one-and-only level turn on whether QFT (or its extension) describes fields of sentience or insentience. Non-materialist physicalists conjecture the former, materialist physicalists the latter. "Materialist" physicalism is much more plausible; it also spawns the Hard Problem.
Now consider the CNS. If we're modelling the brain as a connectionist system, then it's useful to think in the abstract about an idealised system of simple, decohered (i.e. effectively classical), uniform units with connections that change over time in accordance with some mathematically defined change in connection weights - its learning algorithm. But once again, it's not subjectively like anything to be this idealised abstract object; abstract objects are fictions. Classicality might seem a harmless idealisation of membrane-bound neurons in the CNS; it’s also a recipe for micro-experiential zombies.
So why not start from the state of a nervous system formally described by a wavefunction evolving according to the Schrödinger equation? Well of course theorists have considered this possibly as an explanation of classically impossible phenomenal binding. The consensus: it doesn't work! Thermally (etc)-induced decoherence – i.e. the effectively irreversible jumbling of phase angles of the components of a quantum superposition – means that coherent neuronal superpositions are too short-lived. Whether we regard the components of a superposition as sentient or otherwise, what conceivable use is binding at this kind of ridiculous, sub-femtosecond temporal resolution – it’s just functionless psychotic noise.
Enter the selection mechanism of Quantum Darwinism applied to the CNS...
As the Aeon article notes,
“….although it [Quantum Darwinism] shows how the probabilities inherent in the quantum wave function get pared down to classical-like particulars, it does not explain the issue of uniqueness: why, out of the possible outcomes of a measurement that survive decoherence, we see only one of them.“
Beware the perils of perceptual direct realism.
Yes, we have the experience of seeing one unique outcome. But that's not because the superposition principle breaks down. Only because the superposition principle doesn't break down can you instantiate coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors that are experienced as one unique determinate outcome.
Or at least that’s the possibility I explore.
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The risk of calling them "world-simulations" is that the distinction between a magical theory of reference and a functional role is blurred. If your body-image steps in front of a virtual bus when you are dreaming, then life goes on. If your body-image steps in front of a virtual bus while you are awake, then life and your world-simulation come to a definitive end (well, perhaps not always: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/27/i-get-knocked-down-man-hit-by-bus-gets-back-up-again-and-heads-to-pub) If the world-simulation model of perception is correct, then Quine's notion of the inscrutability of reference (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inscrutability_of_reference) has a perceptual analogue. There simply isn't any fact of the matter about what "bus-experiences" are really about. They are a natural property of matter and energy we could in principle assemble from scratch. (cf. Davidson's "Swampman": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swampman)
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Cutaneous rabbit illusion
I assume that the CNS runs (what functions as) an almost real-time simulation of the mind-independent world. None of us has direct access to our extracranial body, or direct access to e.g. an extracranial clock. Compare Libet's experiments. A subject may faithfully report when he decided to raise his arm according to the clock face he sees. But the clock in his world-simulation and the clock in the mind-independent clock are out of synch by a 100 or more milliseconds. Likewise with the Dennett and Kinsbourne experiment you report. Within our world-simulations, we all have vivid, mind-dependent “phantom limbs”, so to speak, i.e. a cross-modally matched body-image in the neocortex that (in contrast to amputees) tends to causally covary with the extracranial body with a time-lag that may or may not be compensated for.
But trying to wrap one's head about what exactly is going on in the cutaneous rabbit illusion is challenging to say the least.
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John, I think we need to unpack what is meant by "observable". When a neurosurgeon, for example, speaks of "observable electro-chemical processes", this turn of phrase might suggest the neurosurgeon has direct perceptual access to the exposed mind-brain of the subject on whom he is operating. Let's say the patient is awake and being probed with microelectrodes. As you suggest, these ostensible "observable electro-chemical processes" are nothing like e.g. the vivid image of his mother that the subject reports experiencing in front of his virtual body-image when a small region in his temporal lobes is stimulated.
The Hard Problem beckons.
However, recall that each of us, including the neurosurgeon, is a prisoner of the phenomenal world-simulation run by one’s own mind-brain, located inside one’s transcendental skull. One never has direct perceptual access to one's own extra-cranial body, or the bodies of others, or an exposed mind-brain of a subject on an operating table. When you’re not dreaming, yes, the contents of your phenomenal world-simulation, playing out within your transcendental skull, causally covary with fitness-relevant patterns in your local environment. It's this tight fit between mind and world that enables the neurosurgeon to operate, even though his mind and world-simulation are inescapably skull-bound. What the neurosurgeon experiences as "observable electro-chemical processes" in the exposed brain of his patient are actually properties of his own mind and the world-simulation it runs – i.e. features of his own mind masquerading as the properties of someone else’s putative brain.
Recall for a moment those rare people who don't undergo the muscular atony that stops neurotypicals like us from unwittingly acting out our dreams. By way of a thought-experiment, imagine that no one ever really "wakes up" - whatever that might mean! - and instead merely unwittingly acts out their dreams by day. Over millions of years, selection pressure ensures that world-simulations run in naturally evolved skull-bound minds tend to track ever more faithfully the local physical environment - with inputs from the optic nerve (etc) shaping lucid dreamworld contents ever more tightly and adaptively. This – I reckon – captures the gist of the human predicament. There is no real “perception”, just world-simulation: Nature’s immersive VR, what a naturally evolved quantum computer “feels like from the inside”. And there’s no real semantics either – another unnaturalisable legacy of folk psychology.
IMO, the best contemporary expositor of the world-simulation metaphor of mind is Antti Revonsuo:
Revonsuo has also written insightfully on the phenomenal binding problem:
In contrast to the perspective I’ve outlined, see the paper that David Chalmers wrote with perceptual direct realist Andy Clark:
("The Extended Mind")
Perception: we each run world-simulations rather than "see" the world. So what's astonishing is their functional congruence.
("People With This Personality Trait Literally See the World Differently")
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John, sorry, by "world-simulation", I mean what perceptual naive realists imagine to be "the world”.
1) Direct realism: you (somehow) directly access your local environment.
2) Your mind-brain (somehow) "projects" an image of phenomenally bound, colourful, well-defined macroscopic objects described by an approximation of classical Newtonian physics onto your surroundings.
3) Simulation: your phenomenal body-image and entire macroscopic world are a simulation run by your mind-brain - just as they are when you’re dreaming - the difference is that when you're “awake”, peripheral nervous inputs select (not create) the contents of the cross-modally matched world-simulation run by your CNS.
If you're hungry for more, a bargain at $175:
("'The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Perception' (Oxford Handbooks) by Mohan Matthen (Editor)")
Any serious treatment of “perception” needs to take on board quantum mechanics and the decoherence program:
("The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation")
"Be careful not to drown in a mirage." (Terri Guillemets)
("Perception: Our useful inability to see reality")
* * *
Are you the prisoner of your skull or a social mind?
("Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’")
Alternatively, a person is a person entirely in virtue of the intrinsic subjective properties of matter and energy. Your lab-created molecular duplicate would be subjectively type-identical too. When one is awake, the mind-independent environment beyond one's transcendental skull plays a causal role in selecting the phenomenal contents of the world-simulation that your mind-brain is running. The contents of this world-simulation include avatars of one’s circle of acquaintance. Their behaviour helps shape one's sense of self-identity: humans are social primates. Yet content selection is not the same as content creation.
Note this view isn't Cartesian scepticism.
Digitise you life, and then hoard all you like...
("Your inner hoarder: Why letting go is so hard to do")
"Too much fun"? No. Better to make funlessness biologically impossible.
("Are We Having Too Much Fun?")
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Natural selection favours perceptual direct realism syndrome, which can be equally scary.
("The terrifying hallucination syndrome you've never heard of – and what we're doing about it")
"Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage". Alas, escape from one's skull is harder...
[on veganism and vegetarianism]
What's the quickest way to veganise the planet?
Should not harming other sentient beings be optional or mandatory?
("The Vegan Option: Blogs and Extended Interviews")
Does urging equality of consideration for all beings of equal sentience make one a communist? Either way, we need an anti-speciesist revolution, and social justice for all sentient beings...
What should be the penalty for harming dogs, cats, babies, pigs, and other beings of comparable sentience?
("Taiwan bans dog and cat meat from table as attitudes change")
CRISPR: in a more civilised world, humans might be genetically edited to help pigs.
("Pigs genetically edited so their organs can be used for human transplants")
"Though shalt not kill." (Gautama Buddha) The simplest way to reduce the world's suffering is global veganism.
("Buddha branding is everywhere – but what do Buddhists think?")
The devil does not wear horns, unlike a lot of his victims. Time to outlaw death factories.
("Our love affair with meat and exploitation of wildlife is leading us to disaster")
A cruelty-free diet can benefit us all.
("Scientists find blood from vegans is eight times more protective against cancer")
An apt response to the way humans treat fish.
("Archerfish Says…'I Spit in Your Face!'")
Nonhuman animal sentience: time for a scientific and ethical revolution...
("Fish are sentient animals who form friendships and experience 'positive emotions', landmark study suggests")
Let's genetically engineer a living world where all memories are happy.
("How Much Do Cats and Dogs Remember?")
Using LSD to communicate with dolphins is as effective as using LSD to communicate with humans. Thalamic bridges?
("Scientists once gave dolphins LSD in attempt to communicate with them")
Moral argument needs complementing by marketing psychology...
("'Seductive names' make vegetables more appealing")
How does one "rehabilitate" a cold-blooded serial killer? Darwinian snakes have no place in a civilised biosphere.
("Meth-addicted python among hundreds of animals in Australian prison rehab")
"The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest." (Isaiah 11:8). Prophetic indeed.
The BBC on Evil: "acts that cause intentional suffering, destruction or damage to B for the benefit of A". (cf. meat eating vs veganism)
("How did evil evolve, and why does it persist")
Scarcely. But if intelligent agents edit genomes in anticipation of the psychological-behavioural effects, then selection pressure could change.
("Survival of the Friendliest. It’s time to give the violent metaphors of evolution a break")
How might factory-farmed pigs judge humans?
("Monkeys and dogs judge humans by how they treat others")
Carnage: Is the industrialised murder of sentient beings best combated by satire?
("Carnage, review: Simon Amstell has made the world's first vegan comedy that's actually funny")
Our descendants will know more; but I'm sceptical they'll comprehend the full horror of Darwinian life.
("The Future Called: We’re Disgusting And Barbaric. Pregnancy, meat eating, and fossil fuels will all one day be unthinkable.")
A bit like missionaries telling cannibals a baby-free diet would be good for the environment...
("Is a vegetarian diet really more environmentally friendly than eating meat?")
How might factory-farmed pigs judge humans?
("Monkeys and dogs judge humans by how they treat others")
[on orthogonality versus the convergence thesis]
Yes, the argument that "'superintelligence' would have to be extremely moral" needs to be carefully distinguished from the argument that "'superintelligence' would have to be extremely moral by the lights of contemporary human values" - though both claims may well be false. Anyhow, consider the class of all intelligent life-supporting Hubble volumes. I don't think we yet know enough to say whether the Convergence Thesis or the Orthogonality Thesis is true - although the answer may be obvious in retrospect. Those of us who believe that (for reasons we simply don't understand) the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world's inbuilt axis of (dis)value do least take Convergence Hypothesis seriously. Partly at issue here is the nature of "superintelligence" - whether we conceive full-spectrum superintelligence as our massively augmented and enriched quasi-biological descendants, or instead envisage e.g. some version of the Intelligence Explosion as conceived by Eliezer/MIRI. Neither conception is an argument for complacency about AI safety.
[on mereological nihilism]
“Mereological nihilism” is a fancy term for a useful concept. In classical physics, it's little more than a truism. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts. Applied to the brain, mereological nihilism leads to an unfathomable mystery. If we make the modest-sounding assumption that membrane-bound neurons can be treated as decohered classical objects, then why aren’t waking/dreaming packs of neurons just micro-experiential zombies - aggregates of neuronal mind-dust with no more ontological integrity than a Mexican wave?
Not everyone is worried. If we allow spooky "strong" emergence, i.e. if mereological nihilism is false, then no problem: local and global phenomenal binding can simply “emerge” in the CNS - especially so if property-dualist panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism are true and consequently there’s no need for the water-into-wine magic of materialist metaphysics. Likewise with the population of the USA: experimentally allow skull-bound American minds to intercommunicate, implement the appropriate computation, and a pan-continental subject of experience is generated! Why not!? Binding problem solved.
Well, maybe spooky strong emergence is true; but if so, then monistic physicalism and the ontological unity of science are false. The insolubility of the binding/combination problem as posed is the reason why David Chalmers feels driven to dualism: the impossible “structural mismatch” between our minds and neurology/physics.
Where have we gone wrong?
Both New Age woo-merchants and quite a few hard-nosed physicists have long wondered if the holism of the mental and the holism of quantum mechanics/QFT have something to do with each other. Recall Schrödinger’s cat is in a superposition of being alive-and-dead, not one or the other: in QM, superpositions are individual states, not classical aggregates.
The scientific consensus is that none of these proposals work. For instance, if the theoretical lifetimes of neuronal superpositions ("cat states") of edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediators etc in the CNS were milliseconds, then we’d have a potentially perfect structural match between the bound phenomenology of our minds/world-simulations and neurology /physics. Phenomenal binding via synchrony is really binding via coherent superposition. Eureka! But of course it's not – not even close. Thermally-induced decoherence in the CNS is insanely rapid. Theorists have done the calculations: Max Tegmark’s paper “Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer” (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/quantum-computer.pdf) is most commonly cited. Assume unmodified and unsupplemented QM. The theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions is the CNS must be mere femtoseconds - or less. For all practical purposes, nerve cells are classical. Mereological nihilism rules. So we're stuck with the binding/combination problem.
The approach I explore doesn’t involve any new physics; it simply takes the above reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind as an experimentally falsifiable prediction. Molecular matter-wave interferometry (cf. the non-classical interference signature of a double-slit experiment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfPeprQ7oGc) can in principle independently confirm or falsify a conjecture that sounds crazy: you’re a quantum mind running a classical world-simulation running at quadrillions of individual quantum-coherent frames per second. This yields a rather "thin" conception of personal identity.
Intuitively, the proposal won’t fly. For a start, our phenomenal minds/world-simulations aren't really like a movie - even a movie running at quadrillions of frames per second. A real movie is run with 24 determinate pre-shot classical frames. By contrast, a “movie” made up of “cat states” of coherent neuronal feature-processors could consist only of random psychotic noise. There's no mechanism that could turn such fleeting sub-femtosecond psychotic noise into the well-defined classical world-simulation populated by bound classical objects that your CNS is running right now. Most notably, nerve cell impulses propagate over milliseconds - not femtoseconds!
Well, in my view, actually there is an exceedingly powerful selection mechanism at work in your CNS - a mechanism for non-psychotic binding that exerts more selection pressure every millisecond than Darwinism selection pressure (as normally conceived) exerts over hundreds of millions of years of evolution via natural selection. It’s quantum Darwinism: https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082.pdf
Despite Zurek’s colourful metaphor, “quantum Darwinism” isn’t new physics: it's just an apt label for the decoherence program in QM. (cf. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf) The decoherence program explains how quasi-classicality emerges in a 100% quantum universe. The superposition principle of QM never really breaks down: decoherence explains the appearance - not the mythical reality - of wavefunction collapse. “Emerge” is used here in the weak, innocent sense of the term, not unphysicalist strong emergence. Many, perhaps most, theorists no longer expect matter-wave interferometry to detect any deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics (cf. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/16/experiment-to-put-microbe-in-two-places-at-once-quantum-physics-schrodinger): Penrose and other “dynamical collapse” theorists are a minority. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objective_collapse_theory)
Decoherence explains how quasi-classical macroscopic objects emerge within the universal wavefunction - and how their emergence allows biological organisms to navigate an apparently shared classical world describable by an approximation of Newtonian mechanics.
Anyhow, what happens when we apply quantum Darwinism (i.e. the decoherence program of post-Everett QM) to the CNS?
Naively, what (weakly) "emerges" is the decohered, discrete classical neurons that we read about in neuroscience textbooks and can investigate with light microscopy. Hence the binding/combination problem. Less naively?
Well, in a nutshell, imagine your normal everyday life as Nature's version of a quantum suicide experiment.
Sometimes you lose (e.g. you "fall asleep"; decoherence wins out; classicality and hence mereological nihilism rules).
Sometimes you win (you "wake up", i.e. a brutal quantum Darwinism exerted on neuronal superpositions turns you into a quantum mind running a phenomenally bound classical world-simulation who wonders why superpositions are never experienced. The answer: you never experience anything else.)
Negative utilitarians invert the “win-lose” label, but the conjecture stands.
How would you act if you learned the world will shortly end?
("Video game beta test reveals how we might act if the world ends")
The acid test will be experiment.
At Tucson, I outlined (with a little help from Andrés!) the protocol for a “Schrödinger’s neurons” experiment using in vitro neuronal networks. It’s conceptually clean, just technically very demanding: https://www.physicalism.com/#6
I don’t seriously claim to predict the result with confidence - but I am curious.
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Carlos, yes, I assume Everettian QM – just not in DeWtt’s sense. For if c. 10100 branches have literally “split” since the start of this sentence, then we’d be (at most) micro-experiential zombies. Decoherence explains how quasi-classical Everettian branches emerge. But DeWitt’s scale for “splitting” in the CNS is too fine-gained. In the CNS, interference between terms is significant: IMO it’s manifested as local and global phenomenal binding. Phase coherence between the components of superpositions as large as a neuronal network in the CNS can only be exceedingly short-lived before it gets hopelessly scrambled to the environment. Even so, the existence of such phase coherence is – I reckon – enough to “save the phenomena”: our fleetingly unitary minds. By contrast, if neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors don’t exist, i.e. if Everettian QM is false, then I’ve no simply idea how to respond to Chalmers’ “structural mismatch” argument for dualism.
Thank you for carefully distinguishing anti-holism from mereological nihilism – I sloppily conflated them. At least in my view, if physicalism is true, then “strong” emergence is false. But if wavefunction monism is also true, then reductionism is false as well - because the world has no “parts” as classically understood. This claim holds whether we assume a “materialist” physicalist ontology, i.e. the “fire” in the equations of physics is non-experiential, or instead explore (like e.g. Galen Strawson - and me) the idea that experience discloses the essence of the physical: the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics needs transposing to an idealist ontology. In other words, both non-reductionist “materialist” physicalism and non-reductionist “idealist” physicalism need to be distinguished from what I called – tendentiously, you’re right – “spooky” strong emergence. Concretely, if the USA were a pan-continental subject of experience as Eric Schwitzgebel supposes, or if 86 billion discrete classical neurons were to generate a pan-cerebral subject of experience/world-simulation, then this sort of holism would amount to unphysicalist “strong” emergence - even if we use the label “naturalistic” rather than “spooky”.
David Wallace? Wallace chides his critics for not taking the methodologically conservative position that Everettian quantum mechanics represents the structure of the physical world, just like any other scientific theory. Yet Wallace doesn’t take his own lesson to heart: he apparently believes in the ultimate reality of four-dimensional space-time rather than Hilbert space realism (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/hilbertspace.pdf) That said, I read "The Emergent Multiverse" – an impressive achievement. If I’m feeling intellectually energetic tonight, I’ll offer my thoughts on his account of probability in Everettian QM. One problem: I just don’t trust my own wordy philosophising and armchair physics. What I do trust – precisely because it’s independent of the arguments above – is interferometry experiments. Either the nonclassical interference signature of an experiment like https://www.physicalism.com/#6 will yield a perfect structural match, or it won’t. If it doesn’t – and I’ll happily concede the prediction is pretty crazy if one understands the raw power of decoherence - then everything I’ve written collapses like house of cards.
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Thanks Andres. Most scientists are as likely to read Leibniz's Monadology as his history of the House of Brunswick: a perhaps unjust neglect. A lot of analytic philosophical discussion on mereology (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mereological_nihilism) and mereological nihilism is conducted as though classical physics were true. For many purposes, this false assumption is reasonable enough. Thus there’s no sense in wasting time investigating whether the superposition principle of QM breaks down inside the CPU of your PC. Even if you believe, as do many AI researchers, that subjects of experience will sooner-or-later somehow “emerge” in classical digital computers, then this emergence won’t derive from functionally irrelevant quantum “noise”.
Yet strictly speaking, mereological nihilism is false. (cf. https://kelvinmcqueen.com/philosophy-quantized/) If wavefunction realism is true, then there are no discrete parts in Nature. The most “extreme” physicalist version of wavefunction realism is wavefunction monism. The World is One! According to wavefunction monism, reality is exhausted by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal wavefunction. The decoherence program (Zeh, Zurek, etc) explains the emergence of quasi-classicality in the mind-independent world. Most notably, Zurek’s “environment as witness” formulation of decoherence theory explains the emergence of “objective”, observer-independent classicality in terms of the selective proliferation of information. (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0505031.pdf) The success of the decoherence program – though contested (cf. Happy birthday ) - has persuaded many / most theoretical physicists that the measurement problem is soluble if not solved.
Which just leaves consciousness….
Four questions to ask any "big picture" theorist:
(1) why consciousness exists at all (the “Hard Problem”).
(2) how consciousness could be locally or globally bound by a pack of membrane-bound, effectively decohered neurons (the phenomenal binding / combination problem).
(3) the "palette problem", i.e. the fundamental ontology of physics is simple, whereas the textures of consciousness are awesomely diverse.
(4) how consciousness exerts the causal power to allow us to discuss its existence (causal impotence vs causal over-determination).
AND the gold standard of good science: what novel, precise, falsifiable predictions does your theory make?
Traditionally, philosophically-minded scientists who invoked consciousness in the foundations QM have done so in the context of the measurement problem – the supposedly non-unitary transformation of the state vector on measurement into a definite state (“the collapse of the wavefunction”). What isn’t disputed is the seemingly self-evident fact that superpositions are never experienced. Eugene Wigner (cf. http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/wigner/) claimed that conscious superpositions were unintelligible. As a matter of brute empirical fact, we always perceive determinate experimental pointer-readings. We observe live cats, and we observe dead cats, but we never observe live-and-dead cats. Some wavefunction monists try to explain our non-experience of quantum superpositions by positing decohered (“split”) Everett branches in which you (1) see a live cat, and other Everett branches in which you (2) see a dead cat. Yet emergent “branching” (cf. https://www.amazon.com/Emergent-Multiverse-Quantum-according-Interpretation/dp/0198707541) is different from experiencing a classically impossible macro-superposition.
Or so the story goes.
Alternatively – and this is my tentative view - your classical world-simulation consists of neuronal macro-superpositions: the phase coherence of a quantum mind experienced "from the inside". The phenomenal world-simulation you’re running right now doesn’t express the unexplained breakdown of the superposition principle of QM but rather its physical embodiment. Our egocentric classical world-simulations are akin to a naturalised movie made up of quadrillions of “cat states”. When you’re incoherent and unbound, so to speak, systematically applying the decoherence program inside your skull leads - with a bit of handwaving - to the emergence of a pack of quasi-classical neurons that e.g. a neurosurgeon would discover if you were put under anaesthesia and your skull were opened up on the operating table. Yet when you’re awake, an inconceivably powerful and unremitting selection mechanism ensures that you instantiate a classically well-behaved world-simulation - no fancy new physics, no violation of unitarity, just the bare textbook formalism of QFT.
Non-materialist physicalism proposes answers to all four questions (1-4 above) – a potentially stunning payoff. But only if independently confirmed via molecular matter-wave interferometry rather than philosophising and armchair physics. :-)
[on the Hedonistic Imperative]
Intuitively, pleasure can't motivate as much as pain. Life based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of well-being would be less "functional." Yet is this necessarily the case? Or can the post-CRISPR biosphere be reprogrammed - and civilised?
Is the complete abolition of suffering impossible?
The cross-species immunocontraception I alluded to was for nonhuman animals in our future "wildlife parks" rather than humans. But later this century and beyond, some extremely thorny issues of procreative freedom are going to arise for humans, too, if many parents still want to have children “naturally” at the price of needless suffering. I think what will really bring the issue of procreative freedom to a head is progress in defeating the biology of aging. Vast number of people will want such technologies for themselves - and their nonhuman animal companions. How will reproduction be regulated when aging as well as suffering and malaise are optional? A vast topic, but central for abolitionist bioethics - because so long as bioconservatives insist on having children "naturally", then suffering will never end.
skynet2013, many thanks. Our distrust of paternalism partly stems from the (often well-justified) suspicion that those humans who presume to act in our interests may not be competent or impartial enough to do so. If sentience-friendly singleton AGI is feasible, then yes, perhaps humans will be treated by such “nanny AI” as akin to toddlers who don’t always know their own best interests. My reasons for scepticism about full-spectrum AGI are idiosyncratic (cf. https://www.biointelligence-explosion.com/parable.html); perhaps I'm mistaken.
Will cruelty always be evolutionarily essential? Maybe. We have good reasons to be cynical about human motivation. Fortunately, technology has a massively amplifying effect on even minimal benevolence. Competitive male altruism, too, can be a powerful force (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Giving_Pledge). And the price of any information-based technology, e.g. genome ending, trends inexorably to zero. Unlike scarce status goods and services, the substrates of bliss don't need to be rationed. Eventually, IMO, intelligent moral agents will probably phase out the biology of suffering throughout the living world. But my best guess is that several centuries - at least - of misery and malaise still lie ahead.
BBlasdel, many hanks for clarifying. OK, first SCN9A. Dozens of alleles have been characterised. Nonsense mutations of SCN9A cause congenital insensitivity to pain. Several variants cause extreme pain disorders. But among the “normal” human population (cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841869/), other alleles of SCN9A are associated simply with an unusually high or unusually low pain-sensitivity. Perhaps consider the kind of high functioning genetic outliers today who say things like, “Pain is valuable, it’s just a useful signalling mechanism!” Anyhow, my point is that soon prospective parents will be able to pre-select everything from pain tolerance to approximate hedonic set-points. The decisions they take will have a huge impact on their future children's quality of life. For sure, pitfalls abound. Yet today’s genetic crapshoot has pitfalls of its own. Every child born at present is a unique and untested genetic experiment.
Risks? Apologies, it simply wasn’t possible to cram a serious discussion of the ethics, technicalities and risks of this kind of project into a thirty-minute talk. You could easily pick another text (e.g. https://www.quora.com/Is-genetic-engineering-crispr-gene-drive-etc-advanced-enough-to-kill-or-save-billions-of-people) and say I am being unduly alarmist!
Science fiction? Well yes. The scenario explored may never happen. Perhaps we’ll opt to conserve the biology of misery and malaise indefinitely. But as the CRISPR genome-editing revolution accelerates, if someone says “There Is No Alternative”, then I think we’re entitled to say that technically this is no longer the case.
Posthuman paradise: for a short-cut... Project Utopia
("Project Utopia, David Pearce, Transhumanism and the Hedonistic Imperative")
* * *
"Religious sounding"? I'm personally a secular rationalist. But secular rationalists don't have a monopoly in wanting to reduce or even abolish suffering. If genetic-biological solutions to the problem of suffering are to gain wider acceptance, then people need to feel that e.g. CRISPR genome-editing is the only effective way to realise their values. So a few Biblical and Buddhist quotes don't go amiss(?).
An apt question?
What are the largest sociological barriers to HI?
Hedonism in the Antipodes
Thanks again to Adam for doing a fantastic job. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution makes the technical obstacles to worldwide biohappiness much less daunting. Perhaps the biggest challenge is status quo bias. (“Whatever is, is right.” ― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man) I guess one day status quo bias will be good. After we make the transition to life based on gradients of intelligent bliss, literally no one will think of going back...
One reason for pessimism about sociologically realistic dates is that getting rid of suffering altogether entails all prospective parents forgoing "natural" reproduction in favour of preimplantation genetic screening if not germline editing. Of course, social revolutions do happen, e.g. wearing clothes. But this one is pretty huge. Why anticipate it will happen at all? Well, if nothing else, phasing out the biology of aging later this century and beyond will turn having kids into a far more tightly regulated event than now - on pain of Malthusian catastrophe. (cf. The Reproductive Revolution).
* * *
Suffering in the Multiverse
Why is the pleasure-pain axis coercive? Choosing not to care about the first-person experience of agony or despair or uncontrollable panic simply isn't an option. By contrast, choosing whether to care about the pains and pleasures of others is highly optional, as history attests. Yet does this ostensible freedom of choice reflect some deep metaphysical truth about the universe? Or just our epistemological limitations? I suspect the latter. Even so, IMO a strong case can be made for selectively embracing ignorance and enjoying lives of superhuman bliss - but only after we are 100% sure all our cosmological ethical duties have been discharged.
The status of Linde's eternal inflation is still heavily contested. (cf. http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=9349#comments) Likewise the Landscape of string theory. But Everett? It's hard to see how "dynamical collapse" alternatives can be made to work.
Jordan, as a NU (notional) button-presser, I promise I more than sympathise. But the world has no clean OFF switch. The questioner asked about the year 3000. I guessed life will be based entirely on gradients of bliss. If uniform bliss rather than information-sensitive gradients of bliss are the norm, then yes, short of some currently unimaginable AI support-network, functionality would degrade, as you suggest - a bit like mainlining heroin all day. Radical elevation of hedonic set-points strikes me as more sociologically believable. One doesn’t need to be a self-avowed hedonist or utilitarian to welcome a higher hedonic set-point. Hedonic set-point elevation is one way to enrich everyone’s quality of life without taking sides in the multitude of conflicting preferences we all have as social primates. Whether or not our superhappy successors are rational in celebrating life strikes me as ethically inconsequential.
Florentino, yes, I should have put a big question mark after (19) “Historical amnesia”. So long as there is the slightest pinprick of distress in the world, then biologically switching off the empathetic capacity to experience sub-zero hedonic states can't be justified. Yet what then? After all, barring some revolution in our conception of the Nature of time, past, present and future are all equally real. How can anyone be happy who is truly empathetic?
I guess my own response would be as follows. Whether transhumans in the year 3000 come to the same conclusion is of course speculative. To be concrete, let's say one had a nasty toothache last week, now banished after a trip to the dentist. Is it callous or insensitive to the suffering of one's ancestral namesake to enjoy life to the full now rather than relive those agonising hours? If the memory serves as a reminder to brush ones teeth, or to promote the blessings of dental hygiene to the widest possible audience (etc), then fine. Otherwise, the experience is best forgotten - completely. Of course, compared to the enormity of the suffering of a Darwinian life, a single toothache is trivial. But should the same lesson be applied to future life writ large?
* * *
David, many thanks. I was more confident about some of the predictions than others.
1) 1960s values? Perhaps! On the other hand, the hippies weren't too hot on genetic engineering or reprogramming the biosphere. Without a genetic rewrite of the tree of life, the biology of involuntary suffering will fester (and proliferate) indefinitely.
2) "Well-informed"? If our reward circuitry is hijacked by e.g. supernormal stimuli in immersive VR, then escapist fantasy worlds might seem more likely. I alluded to selection pressure in basement reality as our best reason for believing that VR won't be ubiquitous. But will refuseniks be common or rare? Then there is the huge complication of (19) "Historical amnesia": how much will fourth millennials understand – or want to understand – about the horrors of Darwinian life? Also, yes, the prediction that the formalism of the TOE will be known and the Hard Problem of consciousness solved sounds ambitious. How do we know it’s not turtles all the way down? Yet recall my doubts about a cosmic Rosetta stone. Short of a currently unimaginable intellectual revolution, fourth millennials won’t understand the implications of most of the solutions of the TOE for state-spaces of consciousness. Even in the year 3000, the enterprise of knowledge will have scarcely begun.
3) Some type of world government seems likely long before the fourth millennium, perhaps later this century or next. But compare how both the League of Nations and the United Nations were formed in the aftermath of two catastrophic wars [In my original Quora answer, I mentioned the depressing likelihood of catastrophic thermonuclear war this century. The "civilising process" in the era of nation states involved the state claiming a monopoly over the use of violence (cf. feudalism) and this trend seems set to culminate in a (democratically accountable?) world state. But will this be before or after nuclear Armageddon? And what about repercussions of the Great Plague? And so forth. That said, I agree: world government in 3000 (probably) won't be akin to the United Nations with an army.
* * *
Thanks David. "Good health for all" sounds a little less racy than "the Hedonistic Imperative" for a conservative audience. But the post-CRISPR biosphere can be very healthy indeed...
(cf. "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being"
Chemically driven hedonism versus the puritan worth ethic? One reason for not dwelling on the economic costs of depression is that productivity matters only insofar as it affects subjective well-being. But one incidental benefit of safe and sustainable mood-enrichers could be faster economic growth...
("50 million years of work could be lost to anxiety and depression")
* * *
Shut factory-farms and slaughterhouses, liberate and care for sentient beings, and give digital zombies the same "human rights" as we'd award a carrot.
("Give robots 'personhood' status, EU committee argues")
Rui, I doubt older people today will live to experience full-blown paradise-engineering - or at least, not unless they sign up for cryonics / cryothanasia. Yet there's no reason why one's later years can't be the best of one's life. Psychopharmacology has had many false dawns. But safe and sustainable euphoriants should be feasible within the next two or three decades - hopefully sooner.
CRISPR: the route to a drug-free future is creating a default state of consciousness so sublime we don't want to change it.
("The expanding universe of synthetic drugs. From “legal highs” to fentanyl, there are more drugs on offer than ever before")
Without #eugenics, the biology of suffering will persist indefinitely. But the "brand" is polluted beyond use.
("Google is perpetuating a very bad definition of ‘eugenics’")
Utopia & dystopia: phasing out the biology of experience below hedonic zero can change the meaning of "things going wrong".
("10 Books With Positive Visions Of The Future, Because Sometimes The Real World Is Dystopian Enough")
Is reprogramming the biosphere to eliminate suffering a utopian dream or a precondition of civilisation?
("Can we count on utopian dreamers to change the world?")
Is the cure for life crises philosophical or biological?
("Is a Life Without Struggle Worth Living?)
If genome editing alters our hedonic range from (crudely!) today's -10 to 0 to +10 to a hedonic range of (crudely!) 70 to 100, might we experience (the functional equivalent of) nostalgia for Darwinian life?
Or are we trapped in a squalid psychochemical ghetto that makes posing this question seem anything other than rhetorical?
("No End of Pleasure")
Shifting our hedonic range a few orders of magnitude higher poses many challenges. But life on Earth needn't be a Darwinian slum:
To succeed, I think we'll need to persuade people that "paradise engineering" is about creating their version of paradise rather than ours - or indeed anyone else's. That's one reason to keep plugging away at hedonic set-point recalibration - dull and uninspiring as such wordiness can sound. Thus I wonder how many people, insofar as they are familiar with the negative feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill, would really be opposed to having a higher hedonic set-point?
The snag? I guess most folk would want it "naturally"...
* * *
Qualia Computing / DP predictions year 3000 Stuart, Andres is a kindly soul - and he evidently wished to spare the readers of Qualia Computing my (tentative) prediction of thermonuclear war this century. Yes, my predictions for life in the year 3000 are quite rosy, but mainly for technical reasons. For example, do you think we will gain mastery of our reward circuitry and deliberately choose to maintain the horrors of suffering indefinitely? Maybe so - but my (tentative) prediction otherwise is made in good faith.
[on the hedonic treadmill]
Interview of DP by Andrés Gómez Emilsson
Alex, thank you. You are very kind. Why isn't the compelling case for using biotech to phase out the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of superhuman bliss more widely recognised? My interviewer, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, now runs a cool website of his own:
Intuitively, extreme agony and despair are worse than extreme pleasure and bliss are good. No amount of happiness elsewhere can notionally offset such horrors. On the other hand, a classical utilitarian can respond that this judgement simply reflects a failure of imagination. And indeed, while on euphoriant drugs, or euphorically manic, or wireheading (etc) then any amount of bad stuff elsewhere will seem a price worth paying for such wonderful experiences. In such extreme states, the subject can't adequately represent the other extreme - and it's unclear what an impartial "God's-eye-view" would amount to.
We can philosophise indefinitely. But biotech offers an incredible opportunity. Phasing out the biology of suffering throughout the living world is consistent - or potentially consistent - with classical, negative, and preference utilitarianism and many other secular and religious ethics besides. Fortunately, no great prophet or religious text says "Thou shalt not genetically recalibrate the hedonic treadmill."
Would you prefer to be happy with locked-in syndrome or malaise-ridden but bodily intact? Serious effective altruism will need to confront the biology of the hedonic treadmill.
("Brain-computer interface allows completely locked-in people to communicate. Completely locked-in participants report being “happy”)
To misquote Marx, philosophers have only interpreted the hedonic treadmill, the point is to change it. (cf. gradients.com) But cool video...
Now You Happy Always Maybe
A curse or a blessing?
("The Danger Of Hedonic Adaptation")
Hedonic adaptation will be great - so long as our hedonic set-points are massively genetically ratcheted up, and our hedonic floor to match! Even in the past decade or so, there seems to be much greater public awareness of the far-reaching implications of hedonic adaptation. Quite separately, all sorts of proposals have been over the years for creating a happier world via drugs. What hasn't happened - frustratingly - is any serious policy proposal for radical global hedonic recalibration via CRISPR / preimplantation genetic screening (etc). Sure, it's a long-term project. 20 years ago, such an idea might have been sci-fi. Technically at least, it's not any more. I guess "hedonic set-point recalibration" doesn't sound as sexy as "superintelligence" or "eternal youth" - though eventually I trust we can have all three...
"Loopholes"(?) aren't enough. We need a global genetic strategy to elevate hedonic set-points in all sentient life.
("The Loophole in the Hedonic Treadmill")
Did perhaps the people who decided not to have plastic surgery tend to have lower hedonic set-points in the first place? The lower one's hedonic set-point, the more prone one is to the learned helplessness and behavioural despair of depression. By contrast, good mood is associated with a strong sense of self-efficacy. Of course, any loopholes - however small - in the hedonic treadmill are welcome until we can genetically enhance and recalibrate.
CRISPR: should life be based on gradients of genetically preprogrammed bliss or the Darwinian hedonic treadmill?
("There’s a biological reason you feel down after having the time of your life")
Slate star codex reports:
EA Global 2017
Great to see Qualia Computing - and the hedonic treadmill - in the news! Kudos Andres! Yes, like pain-sensitivity, hedonic set-point is an adjustable parameter. Benign genetic default settings make an immense long-term difference to your quality of life - lifelong and heritable. If we are ethically serious, then we can ensure via preimplantation genetic screening and counselling that everyone born into the world enjoys a vastly higher default quality of life than today - and without adversely impacting critical insight, social responsibility or intellectual progress. And also, without creating “losers” - the fatal snag that torpedoes so many proposals for a better world. Also, CRISPR-Cas9-mediated gene-editing of alleles modulating hedonic tone and hedonic set-points is feasible in principle for existing humans as well as "animal models". Another advantage: unlike crude pleasure-maximisation, this kind of hedonic enrichment respects the values and preferences of people who may have wildly different preoccupations and priorities from us. In other words, we’re not asking people (including other EAs) to give up their values and preferences in favour of ours - unless their core values include a commitment to conserving involuntary low hedonic set-points.
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)
Imagine if money spent on playing the #lottery were instead invested in therapies to cheat the hedonic treadmill...
("How winning the lottery affects happiness, according to psychology research")
A world without pain?
Pain: let's create children with benign alleles of the SCN9A gene and "drive" them across Nature.
("End Pain Forever. How a Single Gene Could Become a Volume Knob for Human Suffering")
No one should need to beg doctors for relief from physical or psychological pain.
("Some People Still Need Opioids")
No one knows. We can still program a painless biosphere. Organic and silicon robots can have nociception without pain.
("Why Do we feel hot and cold as pain"?)
Despite being a crashing prude, I normally give the example of lovemaking. Making love has information-sensitive dips and peaks, but it's still generically pleasant throughout. More generally, just as some people go through life functioning entirely with gradients of bodily ill-being, life based on information-sensitive gradients of bodily well-being ought to be feasible too. If not, a totally pain-free world will have to rely on smart prostheses.
Pain-recognition is too important to be left to doctors.
("Robot that shows pain could teach doctors to recognise it better")
From pain-free surgery to pain-free life (cf. General-anaesthesia.com)
("Accepting Pain Over Comfort: Resistance to the Use of Anesthesia in the Mid-19th Century")
Rationalising suffering is good until it becomes genetically optional. Post-CRISPR, that day is fast approaching.
("A brief history of humans trying to pretend that suffering is actually OK: Analogies between religious theodicy and secular justifications")
Any sovereign ethic focused entirely on the pleasure-pain axis has counterintuitive ramifications. Gautama Buddha couldn't have foreseen the possibility of a thermonuclear Doomsday Device. But a Buddhist ethic (End suffering!) is arguably nihilistic. The potentially apocalyptic implications of any ethic that gives overriding priority to minimising and preventing suffering have been quite widely discussed. The apocalyptic implications of a hedonistic or classical utilitarian ethic have been less explored. Are classical utilitarians obliged to work for an AI-assisted utilitronium shockwave - or a "nirvana shockwave"?
Pain-relief? Should pharmacies serve beer? Just don't exceed the recommended dose.
("Two pints of beer better for pain-relief than paracetamol")
Let's genetically reprogram pain tolerance across the tree of life. Meanwhile RgIA4 promises nonopioid pain-relief.
("An alternative to opioids? Compound from marine snail is potent pain reliever")
Let's genetically banish local anaesthetic resistance and high pain-sensitivity in the post-CRISPR biosphere.
("The people who can't go numb at the dentists")
Preimplantation genetic screening (PGD) could ensure all future life is born with "low pain" alleles. Rewriting our source code, let alone reprogramming the biosphere, isn't easy. But the biology of suffering is nasty - and pointless.
("Sickening, gruelling or frightful: how doctors measure pain")
Unedited baby-making is immoral; but when will it be illegal?
("Will Editing Your Baby's Genes Be Mandatory")
Drugs versus "irreversible" genetic changes?
CRISPR-based genetic modifications are reversible. Likewise synthetic gene drives. How else to abolish suffering?
("U.S. Military Preps for Gene Drives Run Amok")
Pain is getting worse; it's time to tackle suffering at genetic source.
("More Americans say they're in pain. It’s a fascinating and disturbing medical mystery. Opioid painkillers may make us more sensitive to pain.")
The route to a low-pain followed by no-pain world doesn't lie in chronic use of opioids:
CRISPR: our goal should be nociception without pain for all sentient beings. Until then, designer drugs:
("The Big Pore Theory could cure chronic pain")
Women really are more sensitive to pain. But we need the mindset of autistic male hypersytematisers to get rid of it.
("Sex differences in brain activity alter pain therapies")
What would be your preferred IQ, AQ and EQ?
("Too Much Emotional Intelligence Is a Bad Thing. Profound empathy may come at a price")
There are (I believe) upper bounds to pleasure and pain that are (in theory) rigorously calculable from first principles if phenomenal binding is the manifestation of quantum coherence - and dephasing leads to incoherent "mind-dust". But that's a huge "if"...
Captive nonhuman animals given unlimited access to food, water and morphine can live normal lifespans. But human opioid use is fraught with problems:
("‘civil war’ over painkillers rips apart the medical community — and leaves patients in fear")
I guess I have a rather "female' brain...
("Ibuprofen Relieves Women's Hurt Feelings, Not Men's")
Quite so; but if you want to be one of them, sign up for cryonics / cryothanasia.
("Aubrey de Grey: scientist who says humans can live for 1,000 years")
Many transhumanists believe that living has unexpected upsides too...
("The unexpected upsides of dying")
Which will come first: the end of suffering or the end of aging? Maybe worms hold the key to living happily ever after...
("Why we did not evolve to live forever: Unveiling the mystery of why we age")
Spermidine-rich foods and prolific sex for longer lifespan? Or take supplements?
("Spermidine-rich foods may prevent liver cancer, extend lifespan")
Will ending aging be more challenging than phasing out the biology of suffering?
("The tricks that help some animals live for centuries")
Will science defeat aging but be defeated by the biology of boredom? Or will multimillion year lifespans be fun?
("Why Silicon Valley wants to thwart the grim reaper")
The upper bound to the transhuman lifespan may be billions of years. But edging human lifespan up to even 130 is a huge challenge. IMO aging is harder to defeat than the biology of suffering.
("Dutch scientists say human lifespan has limits")
Roll on opt-out cryonics, opt-in cryothanasia, and an end to the horrible disorder called aging.
("World's oldest man, an Israeli Holocaust survivor, dies at 113")
Is the anti-aging revolution imminent?
("Scientists discover how the brain’s hypothalamus controls ageing – and manage to slow it down")
The Klotho Connection...
("Can a hormone called klotho enhance cognition and hold off dementia? Yes, in mice, at least")
Alzheimer’s disease: all sugary drinks should carry a prominent health warning.
("Sugary drinks tied to accelerate brain aging")
Is sugar not salt the villain of the piece.
("High sugar diets linked to heightened depression risk in men")
Aging: the nature of selection pressure will change as the reproductive revolution of designer babies gathers pace.
("Why evolution is ageist")
Until Darwinian life can be forgotten it can at least be mitigated.
("Dead, IRL. If you could create a digital version of yourself to stick around long after you've died, would you want to?")
"He has stopped eating meat...after being shocked by...how animals are subjected to cruel treatment".
("105-year-old man sets record by cycling more than 14 miles in an hour")
Closing factory-farms and slaughterhouses would improve the brain health of human and nonhuman animals...
("Mediterranean diet prevents brain atrophy, study finds")
Imagine we encounter an advanced civilisation that has abolished suffering. "Meat" is lab-grown. As a nod to tradition, the genetically tweaked descendants of primitive lifeforms graze unmolested in their wildlife parks. Population sizes are regulated by cross-species immunocontraception. Should we urge the advanced civilisation to re-introduce predation, starvation and disease? The horrors of slaughterhouses and factory-farming?
Of course, this is just a thought-experiment. But later this century and beyond, such scenarios will be technically feasible. The point of such thought-experiments is to (attempt to!) disentangle principled ethical-ideological argument from mere status bias.
Standing up: a useful adaptation or an evolutionary relic?
("Sitting down for hours a day speeds up ageing - new research")
"Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets." (Arthur Miller)
If you want intelligence, get a robot.
("People care less about their date's intelligence as they get older")
Let's use CRISPR genome-engineering to create a Default Mode of fitness-enhancing superhuman bliss.
("Is the Default Mode of the Brain to Suffer?")
Full genome sequencing: do you want access to your complete source code or edited highlights?
[on men and testosterone]
A grim indictment of masculinity. But byproducts of high testosterone function include a sense of optimism and vitality & Western civilisation.
("Why Men Die Before Women. Social inequality can't keep women down.")
Testosterone and the male mind...
("How the Brain Determines Sexuality")
Guevedoces / “machihembras" and missing 5-α-reductase.
("The astonishing village where little girls turn into boys aged 12")
How manly is your mind? Are male brains less sentient? https://www.news-medical.net/news/20170807/Study-finds-brains-of-women-to-be-more-active-than-men.aspx ("Study finds brains of women to be more active than men")
[on a zero ontology]
The Hardest Question?
A podcast that discusses the prospects of a zero ontology:
Stuart, the highly speculative idea that mathematically encoded values of qualia cancel of to zero doesn’t entail that pain and pleasure somehow balance each other out too - as though pleasure and pain were akin to positive and negative electric charge. Most qualia have no intrinsic hedonic tone. [Whether reality contains more pleasure or pain is an open question. Primordial life-supporting Everett ”branches” where organisms never master their own genetic source code presumably hugely exceed other quasi-classical "branches" where they do. But happy quasi-classical “branches” where intelligent life does gain control of its reward circuity are likely to generate prodigious amounts of bliss - intelligent or otherwise - as well as getting rid of suffering.]
The entropy of reality? A tricky one. Woe betide anyone who challenges the second law of thermodynamics. The entropy of reality could be zero only if the world had one state. Yet – and this is weird – if wavefunction monism is true, then perhaps reality does have just one state. Recall the Hartle-Hawking approach to cosmology where the wavefunction of the universe just (tenselessly) exists in a single pure state with no loss of unitarity. Or as Jan-Markus Schwindt puts it, “Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation”: https://arxiv.org/abs/1210.8447
* * *
Why does anything exist?
Why Does Anything Exist?
Thanks Andres. Deep questions that seem utterly insoluble often turn out to be subtly ill-posed. Unlike some people, I don't think the question, "Why is there anything at all?" is meaningless; but perhaps the question could be precisely and correctly posed only if we already knew the answer. With this caveat in mind, does some kind of zero ontology make any novel, exact, empirically falsifiable predictions? Any failure of the superposition principle, currently tested only up to the level of fullerenes, would also experimentally falsify a zero ontology in virtue of creating information ex nihilo. However, to call this a "prediction" rather than a retrodiction would be a bit misleading since (at least in my case) it was reading Everett that triggered musings about the net information content of reality in the first instance.
Perhaps a more convincing candidate for a falsifiable test will be quantum gravity, because no theory subsuming QM and GR yet exists. Theorists working on the mathematical formulation of a TOE aren't trying to falsify an informationless zero ontology. However, a failure of the superposition principle (as proposed by e.g. Roger Penrose: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v538/n7623/full/538036a.html) would also falsify this entire explanation-space of theory.
The most recent philosopher-physicist working in this explanation-space is Lawrence Krauss:
If reality truly has four (or even 11!) dimensions, such a nice clean number would falsify an informationless zero ontology. Yet as Krauss' reviewer David Albert (ironically) has long argued, such an assumption may be naive:
Well, as I suggested in my Quora answer, maybe mysteries really do cancel each other out.
Is our universe the only possible one?
* * *
How much information has reality? Naively, a lot: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bekenstein_bound
With the exception of “dynamical collapse” theorists in QM, most physicists agree that information can neither be created nor destroyed. However, Max Tegmark asks, "Does the universe in fact contain almost no information? https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9603008.pdf
Is this almost-but-not-quite no information, as conceived by Tegmark, supposed to have been created from pure... informationlessness, zero information – whatever that might be? Or timelessly to exist?
If one were remotely predisposed to believe conspiracy theories, then the physical universe might seem like one gigantic conspiracy to prevent one from definitively extracting information – in ways ranging from a standard double-split experiment to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_choice_quantum_eraser to Schrödinger's cat and Wigner's friend.
In some sense, of course, information must be real: you're experiencing something right now. [I guess I should drop the “of course”: I know several radical eliminativists about consciousness.] When exploring a zero ontology, we should be wary of lapsing into sterile word-games about "Nothing". But I do find the parallel between an informationless quantum library of Babel and Everettian wavefunction monism quite uncanny.
How does one reconcile a zero ontology, i.e. the total information content of reality cannot exceed zero, with the inflationary multiverse? On the fact of it, the Landscape of string theory refutes an informationless zero ontology. But this may be too hasty: see Bousso and Susskind (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1105.3796.pdf) on why Everett and the inflationary multiverse may be two sides of the same coin, so to speak.
* * *
“Qualia = maths = physics = information = 0” looks exactly like the kind of psychotic pseudo-profundity one finds scrawled in notebooks of cranks. But although it’s unverifiable, there are countless ways the conjecture could be falsified, e.g. some failure of unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Even a seemingly information-rich clam like “Reality has four (or 11) dimensions” can’t be taken at face value. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/hilbertspace.pdf) What a zero ontology conjecture really needs is some genuinely novel and precise experimentally falsifiable prediction rather than retrodictions. As you know, I think molecular matter-wave interferometry will disprove one “obvious” fact inconsistent with a zero ontology, i.e. the problem of definite outcomes in QM. It’s precisely the fact that the superposition principle of QM doesn’t break down in the CNS that creates the illusion that it does: i.e. phenomenally bound classical cats and determinate pointer-readings within our neuronal world-simulations. But another way to falsify the conjecture will lie in the reconciliation of QM and GR: gravity can't be renormalized. And alas here I’m just an interested spectator…
[on artificial intelligence]
Are we doomed?
How to Regulate Biological Intelligence – a sentience-friendly version of “three laws of robotics” that Isaac Asimov introduced in 1942:
"A biological robot may not injure a sentient being or, through inaction, allow a sentient being to come to harm; a biological robot must obey the orders given it by artificially intelligent beings, except when such orders would conflict with the previous law; and a biological robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the previous two laws."
But does safety demand an OFF switch?
A benevolent superintelligence would not create Homo sapiens, or indeed Darwinian life...
* * *
Intense pain and intense pleasure are coercive. Whether one is a mighty warrior or a fanatical effective altruist - i.e. regardless of how one is "programmed" - a ruthless interrogator or an unwise decision to explore what it's like to mainline heroin can override one's ideology. Is there a digital analog of this subversion? Maybe a programmer could deliberately create something analogous in an AI or video game character; I'm sceptical it will just happen.
AI: will Skynet respect algorithmic accountability?
("This AI translates its internal monologue for humans to understand—and plays Frogger")
Battling mythological abstractions poses many philosophical challenges...
("Apple officially joins the fight against the Singularity")
Will artificial intelligence infantilise humans or empower us?
("The hi-tech war on science fraud")
Sentience-friendly intelligence means closing factory-farms and slaughterhouses, not paranoia about a zombie putsch.
("Elon Musk's Billion Dollar Crusade to Prevent a Zombie Apocalypse")
AI and education: let robots teach our professors? For easy stuff like physics perhaps, but not psychopharmacology.
("Let Robots Teach Our Kids? Here’s Why That Isn’t Such a Bad Idea")
Alternatively, superhuman intelligence entails superhuman empathy (cf. High-tech Jainism).
("Jürgen Schmidhuber on the robot future: ‘They will pay as much attention to us as we do to ants'")
Paradise engineering? I hope so, but full-spectrum superintelligence won't come to pass via piety and prayer.
("fAIth. The most avid believers in artificial intelligence are aggressively secular – yet their language is eerily religious. Why?")
Interfacing is more credible than uploading. Digitisation destroys sentience; interfacing enriches.
("Elon Musk Isn’t the Only One Trying to Computerize Your Brain")
AI triumphalism: digital zombies are not going to unravel the mysteries of sentience.
("Will artificial intelligence help us solve every problem")
AI and algorithms: being a mindless, brainless zombie is not a fatal obstacle to intelligence...
("What are algorithms?")
If God-like superintelligence judges the world is better without humans, how high should be our credence that superintelligence is mistaken?
Eliezer Yudkowsky responds "A superintelligence that wipes out humans is not expressing a belief about the subject matter we call "betterness".
("The Orthogonality Thesis")
Robot ethics: hardwire anthropocentric bias or code for recursively self-improving happiness-maximisers?
("After 75 years, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics need updating")
A face-to-face appointment with your GP is no substitute for a consultation with Dr Google.
("How Googling your health questions just got easier and more reliable")
Our machines now have knowledge they'll never understand either. But digital zombies don't understand the nature of their own ignorance.
("Our Machines Have Knowledge We'll Never Understand")
It's safer to extend the circle of compassion too far than not far enough.
("Is it unethical to design robots to resemble humans?")
Or who can save superintelligence from humanity?
("Who can save Humanity from Superintelligence?)
No, it's time to treat pigs, sheep and cows like toddlers, and digital zombies as human property.
("It’s Time To Treat Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant Like The Toddlers They Are")
Another reason to offload medicine to AI:
("These Are the Most Prestigious Diseases")
AI: will augmented eternity bots replace your current circle of acquaintance?
("Want to chat with Shakespeare? AI bots will soon allow us to talk to the dead")
Can AI teach humans intellectual humility?
("For a modest personality trait, 'intellectual humility' packs a punch")
Do you really worry about artificial intelligence?
("Machines aren't growing more intelligent. They are just doing what we programmed them to do. AI’s PR Problem. Had artificial intelligence been named something less spooky, we’d probably worry about it less")
which is not to say digital zombies won't soon display more empathetic understanding than sentient humans.
("MIT’s new robot reads your thoughts and knows when it made a mistake")
AI might be better used to track your boss instead.
("AI tracks your every move and tells your boss if you’re slacking") Digital zombies will soon display superhuman emotional intelligence.
("Emotional intelligence is the future of artificial intelligence: Fjord")
What kind of computer are you?
("IBM Will Unleash Commercial 'Universal' Quantum Computers This Year")
"AI should be shared broadly and benefit all Aryans." Will superintelligence be racist or speciesist?
("Experts have come up with 23 guidelines to avoid an AI apocalypse")
AI: do you worry more about artificial intelligence or biological malevolence?
("How worried should we be about artificial intelligence? I asked 17 experts")
Can recursively self-improving organic robots bootstrap our way to superintelligence? Or only digital zombies?
AI and affective computing: will intelligent digital zombies soon behave more sensitively than archaic humans?
("When Machines Know How You're Feeling: the Rise of Affective Computing")
Classical digital computers have no mind, no brain, and no self; but they can increasingly outperform humans.
("If I Only Had a Brain: How AI ‘Thinks’")
Creating ethical superintelligence would solve all our problems.
("Frankenstein fears hang over AI. Artificially intelligent systems must not replicate human bias")
Just don't mention utilitronium shockwaves.
("That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox")
"...there are bounds set by physics on how much information can be stored & processed by one kilogram of matter...Could there exist similar bounds on how much value one kilogram of matter could embody?"
When will digital zombies be smart enough to explain to credulous humans why they don't have minds?
("Intelligent machines are asked to explain how their minds work")
Communication may in future be possible with the mostly disconnected hemisphere. Ethically, however, I think we should bear in mind there are billions of sentient beings in a functionally analogous position in factory-farms. Just how much do we really want to know about the sentience of others?
("After years of being “locked in,” patients communicate, say they’re happy")
[Rob Wiblin suggests] Is the claim "'superintelligence' would have to be extremely moral, because it would *by the definition superintelligent* be outstandingly good in every dimension" akin to the ontological argument in theology?
Think of any form of behaviour from history that we would now recognise as morally obnoxious (slavery, persecuting witches, Aztec human sacrifice, the Holocaust, etc) In each case, we can point to one or more beliefs of its practitioners that is factually false.
Presumably superintelligence won't act on the basis of false belief.
Presumably too, superintelligence won't have a false theory of personal identity either, or entertain the false belief that one particular being (or race or tribe or class, etc) is ontologically special.
Anyhow, I'm not arguing that that developing botched artificial (super-)intelligence doesn’t carry risks - or indeed for some version of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. But how much should we actively worry about how a notional full-spectrum superintelligence - in command of all relevant first-person and third-person facts - will behave?
Either way, male human primates actively scare me far more.
("The impossibility of immorality: Study suggests the brain views immoral acts as if they are impossible")
* * *
And phenomenally bound consciousness in all its guises? We need a better root-metaphor of our minds than a classical digital computer.
("Polymath Stephen Wolfram Defends His Computational Theory of Everything")
Good news for heavy coffee drinkers (normally 10 cups a day in my case)...
("How Your Morning Coffee Might Slow Down Aging. Researchers zero in on how caffeine appears to fight inflammation")
Drink coffee for cognitive health.
("Caffeine boosts enzyme that could protect against dementia, study finds")
Coffee is a life-extending, mood-brightening cognitive enhancer. Perhaps combine with l-theanine to combat anxiety. Add l-theanine as an anxiolytic.
("Drinking coffee could lead to a longer life, research says")
[on high-tech Jainism]
High-tech Jainism? Absurdly quixotic? Let's hope posthuman superintelligence is as kind to humble creatures like us.
("Vet saves snail's life by mending his broken shell")
Rats: creating a pan-species welfare state will mean overcoming many forms of ideological prejudice.
("15 reasons why rats should be your next pet")
* * *
Chris, here's an example of a local maximum. Imagine that elsewhere in the galaxy is an advanced civilisation that has abolished pain, suffering, death and aging. Its members spend their lives enjoying rich, exotic, beautiful states of consciousness.Their lives are animated by gradients of intelligent bliss. Within their wildlife parks, tweaked descendants of primitive lifeforms flourish unmolested: there is no predation, starvation or disease. Nanny AI and cross-species immunocontraception have replaced Darwinian ecosystems.
This would be an example of a local maximum. The advanced extraterrestrials prematurely concluded that all their ethical duties had been discharged. Hence they didn't send out space probes which would have revealed the existence of pain-ridden Darwinian life on planet Earth, and hence the need for cosmic rescue missions.
Of course, the above is just a thought-experiment. For what it's worth, I suspect the Rare Earth hypothesis is true, and humans (or our descendants / successors) are more likely to spread misery and malaise across the galaxy than cosmic joy. But the fable illustrates why it's vital that intelligent moral agents make sure that the theoretical upper bounds of intelligent agency are understood before prematurely surrendering to lives of bliss.
Other examples of local maxima might be wireheading (https://www.wireheading.com) - human or nonhuman - and Aldous Huxley's Brace New World. (https://www.huxley.net) More controversially, a classical utilitarian must presumably argue that even a civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss is just a local maximum that fails to deliver the upshot of a true utilitronium shockwave...
"A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing. One that sounds good, and a real one." (J.P. Morgan)
("Why do people hate hypocrites")
[on obsessive compulsive disorder]
Does over-expressing SPRED2 promote serenity?
("Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Behaviors Linked To Missing Protein In The Brain")
OCD: potential danger lurks everywhere. How can we design a world where reality seemingly conspires to help you?
("This Could Explain Why People With OCD Can't Overcome Their Urges. Never knowing if things are safe.")
Adam, thanks. Confronted with the Hard Problem of consciousness, a minority of (consciousness realist!) theorists have been willing to explore the panpsychist conjecture that primordial experience is an irreducible aspect of the most fundamental entities recognised by physics. Here I'll mention just two problems with such property dualism.
First, is property dualism consistent with monistic physicalism? Almost all practising physicists would dispute that any "hidden variables” or "element of reality" is absent from the formalism of physics, i.e. relativistic quantum field theory or its speculative extension. More colorfully, “an electron has no hair".
Secondly, if physical properties as normally understood are doing all the causal work, then how can we bodily write about consciousness and discuss its properties, varieties, causal (in)efficacy and phenomenal binding, as we're doing now? In other words, if some irreducible phenomenal aspect is supposedly attached to (superpositions of) physical fields, superstrings, branes, or whatever, then how could we even allude to its existence? What could cause physical stuff to refer to its allegedly nonphysical, phenomenal aspect?
I don’t know; I’m not a property dualist. I arrived at my (very) tentative non-materialist physicalism via Michael Lockwood; but I don’t recommend reading my ancient review of Lockwood because its terminology is misleading (cf. Lockwood postscript.)
The most recent philosopher to defend non-materialist physicalism – though not under that label – is Galen Strawson:
It's worth distinguishing property-dualist panpsychism from non-materialist physicalism:
("Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true")
[on MDMA / Ecstasy]
("GHB and MDMA")
Thank you Andrés. I guess my conception of a navigational scheme strikes the uninitiated as rather like discovering Easter eggs. Anyhow, if I had to guess one feature of posthuman consciousness beyond exalted hedonic tone, then it would be the raw intensity of everyday posthuman experience. By comparison, today's normal waking consciousness is akin to mere sleepwalking. Given the nature of Darwinian life, such an absence of supersentience is probably a blessing. But intelligent post-Shulgin life may be poised to "wake up". Of course, talk of "intensity" of experience doesn't make much sense within the reigning computationalist paradigm. This is one reason we need qualia computing.
Just as progress in natural science has been critically dependent on the experimental method, the same is true of any future science of consciousness - although the methodological challenges are more daunting. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathogen%E2%80%93entactogen) More radically than entactogen-empathogens, the vast majority of state-spaces of consciousness - modes of experience as different as dreaming from being awake - have never been selected for an information processing purposes by natural selection. So they will exceptionally hard to navigate, and impossible to communicate to the drug naïve. However, my defence of non-materialist physicalism - and tentatively proposed solution to the binding problem whose intractability drives David Chalmers to dualism - isn’t offered as a methodological toolkit for consciousness researchers. Rather, it's aimed at anyone who recognises the compelling arguments for physicalism, i.e. no "element of reality" is missing for the formalism of our best mathematico-physical description of the world, quantum field theory (or tomorrow’s TOE), and who likewise recognises the compelling arguments the Church–Turing thesis in computability theory. How can a science of consciousness - and qualia computing! - be reconciled with what we think we know about the natural world?
* * *
But a more rewarding way to induce empathy would be safe, sustainable analogs of empathetic euphoriants like MDMA:
("Stress can increase empathy")
Can humans be civilised via safe & sustainable "hug-drugs" or genetic amplification of our oxytocin & dopamine pathways?
("Honing In on the Brain's "Cuddling" Circuitry")
Let's phase out the genetics and biology of low mood.
("Depression Steals Your Soul and Then it Takes Your Friends")
Perhaps compare heightened trust, intimacy and self-disclosure induced by taking MDMA (which releases a cocktail of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin).
("'Cuddle chemical' oxytocin linked with distrust in new study")
Taking MDMA ("Ecstasy") promotes unimaginable emotional honesty. But are dark Darwinian minds best kept unread?
("The Worst Part of Keeping a Secret")
Should we really create children with the GTF2I "unfriendliness" gene?
("MDMA mimics a genetic disorder called cocktail party syndrome")
[on gene editing]
Pilot studies of post-Darwinian life can prefigure reprogramming the biosphere via CRISPR-based gene drives.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/magazine-41151951/building-a-new-world-inside-a-giant-greenhouse ("Building a new world inside a giant greenhouse")
Only gene editing allows Darwinian life to create something better.
("How Gene Editing Could Ruin Human Evolution")
The co-evolution of genes and culture may be even more intimate than we suppose...
("Cultural differences may leave their mark on DNA")
The Hedonistic Imperative Documentary
Should we aim primarily for better designer drugs or improved tools of gene-editing? Intuitively, drugs are short-acting and gene-editing is more "permanent". Soon the distinction will blur. Either way, IMO our goal should be a vastly richer default state of consciousness for all sentient beings.
("Five Ways to Get CRISPR into the Body")
[on virtual reality]
A nice Edge interview with David Chalmers.
But selection pressure in basement reality will always have primacy. And your phenomenal world-simulation - whether sculpted by VR or otherwise - can neither be digital nor classical unless you're just a pack of decohered membrane-bound neurons: a "micro-experiential zombie".
("The Mind Bleeds Into the World")
Should we try to beautify our squalid basement reality or transcend it?
("Alternative realities still suffer from technical constraints")
[on interstellar travel]
“As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.” (Peter Cook)
("Interstellar Blues and the Pitfalls of Long-Duration Spaceflight. Passengers explores the difficulties, both personal and scientific, of journeying to another star")
In future will all of life's challenges be virtual?
("How almost-impossible video games can create euphoric moments")
[on quantum mechanics]
Are we just a bunch of "cat states"?
How did this catastrophic accident happen?
("What Was Our Universe Like Before the Big Bang?")
Suffering in the Multiverse
Thanks Andres. Yes, reality appals me. For technical reasons, I think "we" are heading for a future of superhuman bliss. Dark views like mine will be literally unthinkable - just the depressive psychosis of a bygone era. But not even superintelligence can violate unitarity and all that Everettian QM entails. "We" may have knowledge that our descendants are spared.
Quantum mechanics and post-truth politics.
Why do some physicists want to rebuild quantum mechanics
Can a mathematical platonist defend the conjecture that information is physical?
("Is “information is physical” contentful?")
Fantastic post. Thanks. Scott, a question, one thing I wasn’t clear about. You speak of your "inner Platonist" and how "the physical world we observe comprises only a tiny sliver of mathematical possibility-space". Yet according to Landauer - if I've understood him correctly - mathematics itself is meaningful only if it is the product of real computational processes. Are you suggesting that we should believe in the existence of two radically different kinds of information, i.e. physical information that takes up a minimum amount of space and also disembodied mathematical information that exists in abstract mathematical space? Or am I interpreting your "inner Platonist" too literal-mindedly? (if so, apologies!)
Thanks for clarifying Scott. You’re probably right. But my inner nominalist rebels at the “certainly”. Yes, it’s hugely useful to assume fictionalism is false (cf. Hartry Field’s “Science Without Numbers”). Likewise, it’s hugely useful to assume the falsity of e.g. ultrafinitism. Yet do we know this is the case, or are we just expressing our deeply felt intuitions? A nominalist might say that simply helping oneself to an ontology of abstract objects is the kind of sloppy thinking only a mathematician could love. Might “all information is physical” literally be true and exhaust reality – including the physical minds of mathematicians?
What's more, we've no evidence the superposition principle of QM ever really breaks down.
("In a quantum race everyone is both a winner and a loser")
Maths-lite quantum theory for philosophers.
("Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics")
On John Wheeler's participatory universe
https://www.quora.com/What-is-your-view-of-John-Wheeler’s-concept-that-we-exist-in-a-participatory-universe-which-he-described-as-“it-from-bit’/answer/David-Pearce-18">It from no bit?
Do “observers” play a privileged role in creating reality, as John Wheeler believed in later life? Or as Wheeler’s PhD student Hugh Everett argued, is reality described by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of (a relativistic analogue of) the universal Schrödinger equation?
What's a quantum computer good for - prime factorisation or classically impossible phenomenal binding of the world-simulations run by biological minds?
("David Deutsch's Dream Machine")
"Can you boil quantum physics down to one sentence?" Yes
("The superposition principle (cf. “Schrödinger’s cat”) never breaks down: reality is exhausted by the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal wavefunction.")
Quantum physics - a fuller answer would involve a lot of subordinate clauses and a sinister equation:
Is consciousness a quantum phenomenon?
And the 1026 atoms of the human mind-brain?
("Bell correlations measured in half a million atoms")
Posterity has a lot to answer for.
("Physicists provide support for retrocausal quantum theory, in which the future influences the past")
Lev Vaidman (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lev_Vaidman) has long urged the need to combine Everett with the time-symmetric two-state vector formalism (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-state_vector_formalism)
Are "quantum struldbrugs" real?
Lewis and Everett
“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.”
(Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies)
Philosophers tend to worry about the phenomenal binding problem; researchers on the foundations of QM worry about the problem of definite outcomes. The possibility they have a common explanation is bizarre. And true? I don’t know.
The paradoxes of quantum mechanics
[Derek Potter writes] As Mark Twain didn’t say, there are three things that are inevitable, death, taxes and decoherence.
Perhaps death, taxes and decoherence are all curable:
Is the price of understanding reality psychosis?
What is information? Was it really created 13.8 billion years ago? Does its cosmic abundance exceed zero?
("Why Information Matters")
Planck-regime physics can't be tackled by Popperians but shouldn't be wholly surrendered to philosophers (or theologians!)
("'Science Needs Reason to be Trusted"' by Sabine Hossenfelder")
Alternatively, "cat states" underpin the phenomenally bound classical world-simulation you're running right now:
("Physicists 'Breed' Schrödinger’s Cats To Shed Light On Boundary Between Quantum And Classical Worlds")
Physicalism: is reality fields(branes?) of sentience or insentience? The obvious answer is empirically false.
("String Theory and the Real World")
How do you escape solipsism-of-the-here-and-now and construct the illusion of an enduring metaphysical ego?
Everettians have other worries too - too many googols to count.
("New research on multiple personalities is challenging the idea that we have a fixed identity")
Robin, why do experiments and observations have definite outcomes? Everett, "many minds", Copenhagen, and the whole menagerie of other interpretations of the quantum formalism give different answers. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpretations_of_quantum_mechanics) Most interpretations nonetheless take for granted what might seem self-evident, namely that quantum superpositions ("cat states") are never experienced. In my response to George Musser's Nautilus essay, I argue that you're experiencing "cat states" right now. Indeed you never experience anything else. Only the universal validity of the superposition principle allows what the perceptual direct realist calls "observations" of phenomenally bound live cats, determinate pointer-readings, and a classical macroscopic world. By contrast, if neurons were classical, then we'd be nothing but aggregates of neuronal "mind-dust".
How does ψ-epistemic program explain quantum computation? Alas I know of no good argument against Everett.
("Is Quantum Theory About Reality or What We Know?")
("Is the Quantum State Real? An Extended Review of ψ-ontology Theorem")
Are you a field in an insanely high-dimensional conﬁguration space? And if so, a field of what? A thoughtful critique of wave function monism:
("On the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics: Why the Wave Function is not a Field")
The multiverse: for better or worse, life will go on.
("Curtains For Us All?")
Over 540 billion years ago, IMO. Phenomenal binding isn't classical. But our minds aren't universal quantum computers
("Quantum Computing Might Be Here Sooner Than You Think")
What's it like to be quadrillions of quantum superpositions? Perhaps like the classical world-simulation you're running now.
("Proposed test would offer strongest evidence yet that the quantum state is real")
Physics: embrace the magic world of three-dimensional space or conserve locality with wavefunction realism?
("What is spooky action at a distance?
Why some things are neither here nor there")
Wavefunction monists shouldn't be materialists - not if they aim to explain our phenomenally bound minds.
("Mind, matter and materialism")
Martin, well, our own minds - and the phenomenally bound world-simulations they run - clearly aren't universal quantum computers. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_Turing_machine) This should be acknowledged whether one believes that phenomenal binding is (somehow!) classical or a manifestation of quantum coherence, i.e. neuronal superpositions (“cat states") of distributed feature-processors. Perhaps true nonbiological universal quantum computers operating near absolute zero will be phenomenally bound fourth-millennium "minds" with a phenomenology that is literally inconceivable to us - a point worth stressing when answering the charge of arbitrary "carbon chauvinism”. Either way, the failure of interferometry to find a perfect structural match will falsify my own preferred option.
I'll probably then just give up.
"Science is nothing, but trained and organized common sense." (Thomas Huxley)
("Quantum Mechanics, Gravity, and the Multiverse"... "...eternally inflating multiverse with the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics...")
Local realism and QM.
Is the mathematical machinery of QM just a tool for generating predictions? Or should we interpret the formalism realistically? If we do the latter, i.e. if we are configuration space or Hilbert realists, then the dimensionality of reality is (much!) higher than we naively suppose. But locality is conserved.
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish counterfactuals from mere Everett branches.
("If not Darwin, Who?")
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” (Mae West)
("The Multiple Multiverses May Be One and the Same")
("What Happened at the Big Bang")
Deepak Chopra walks into a bar...?
("Can quantum theory explain why jokes are funny?")
Alas a story inconsistent with the existence, binding, palette and causal efficacy of conscious mind has too many loose ends.
("Physics: Revelations of fundamental science")
Do observers collapse wavefunctions? Or are "observers" classically impossible neuronal superpositions?
As always, Luboš makes a forceful case for preserving classical observers à la Copenhagen:
("When a layman has no chance to comprehend the bit-qubit difference")
QBism is just Copenhagen in fancy dress.
("Mind Over Matter")
IMO, non-materialist physicalists should - provisionally - accept wavefunction monism, as do increasing numbers of "materialist" physicists in the wake of the decoherence program. "No collapse" quantum mechanics is deeply disturbing if true. But rather than googols of universes being created since the start of this sentence, as the Aeon essay suggests Everettians believe, we really need to grapple with the implications of "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation" :https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf
Much more controversially - I should perhaps say idiosyncratically - in my view it's precisely because decoherence ("splitting") is progressive not absolute that we're not just pixels of decohered neuronal mind-dust.
Pilot wave theory? Adam, I've not really considered I'm afraid. The usual objections. (Non-relativistic, "ghost worlds", "Everett-in-denial", etc) But also: a good theory must be empirically adequate. Not least, a good theory should derive rather than posit the existence of phenomenally bound observers. Both Bohm and Everett treat the wavefunction as a physically real field. If the field is experiential, then the superposition principle explains phenomenal binding. But if the field is non-experiential or - in the case of Bohmian mechanics - if particles are treated as ontologically fundamental and the wave function obeying Schrödinger's equation exists only to govern the motion of particle positions, then why we aren't p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies?
To misquote Bertrand Russell, mathematical physics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.
("A Physicist’s Crash Course in Unpeeling the Universe")
I trust a few centuries from now suffering won't exist. Perhaps experience below "hedonic zero" will be literally inconceivable. But despite believing we are heading for a future of sublime bliss, I am often sunk in gloom because of decohered Darwinian hellworlds. Let's hope Everett is bunk.
("Evil Triumphs in These Multiverses, and God Is Powerless")
The speculative metaphysical conjecture that one is a mind-brain in a skull may well be true.
("Universes that spawn ‘cosmic brains’ should go on the scrapheap")
Should you be scapegoated for the actions of your faraway avatar? Or will the courts allow the holographic defence?
("Study reveals substantial evidence of holographic universe")
Or only superpositions are experienced; neuronal superpositions are the experience of determinate classical outcomes.
("Why Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics Is More Important Than That of Poached Eggs")
Quantum minds can phenomenally simulate classical worlds; but decohered neurons are just "mind-dust": physicalism.com. Received wisdom is that superpositions ("cat states") are never experienced, only inferred; but in my view, only neuronal superpositions allow us to experience determinate classical outcomes.
("The strange link between the human mind and quantum physics")
The trouble with QM is that preserving realism, determinism, and locality leads to Hilbert space realism / Everett...
("The Trouble with Quantum Mechanics by Steven Weinberg")
Does our seemingly low-dimensional world emerge from an insanely high-dimensional reality, Reichenbach wondered back in 1926. But he balked:
(review of Alyssa Ney and David Albert, The Wave Function: Essays on the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics, Oxford University Press, 2013, Craig Callender")
A nice overview of Everett from Lev Vaidman - though in my view, only neuronal superpositions can sustain the illusion of classicality. Vaidman takes the standard view superpositions can't be experienced:
("All is Ψ")
The most...um, spirited defender of Copenhagen alive today is Luboš Motl. Though I think antirealism is mistaken, Luboš really knows his stuff technically:
Despite Luboš' animus towards "anti-quantum zealots", the positivist notion of "observation" is itself a legacy from classical physics. In my view, the experience of an "observation" can be understood only quantum-theoretically. ("It is the theory that describes what we can observe" - Einstein) Only the universal validity of the superposition principle allows what would otherwise be discrete neuronal feature-processors ("mind-dust") to be experienced as, say, a phenomenally bound classical pointer-reading in a classical world-simulation. Otherwise, we would micro-experiential zombies if a "pack of neurons" were classical: the universal validity of QM allows phenomenally bound macroscopic world-simulations subjectively describable by an approximation of classical physics.
The primacy of "observation":
("John Preskill's strange softcore (?) anti-quantum zeal")
Luboš, I'm still struggling, can you clarify? Are you arguing that our observations can't even in principle be derived from anything more primitive? Let's say one undergoes the experience of observing, say, a determinate classical pointer-reading or a classical-looking cat (etc). Is this experienced observation identical with (1) a fleeting neuronal superposition? or (2) a bunch of effectively decohered, quasi-classical neurons (but no real breakdown of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics)? or 3) a bunch of literally classical neurons (i.e. a failure of unitarity)? or 4) something else altogether? * * *
All physicists are philosophers, but sadly not all philosophers are physicists...
("Daniel Kleitman reviews Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark")
("Hand-Waving Exact Science by Sheldon Glashow In response to: “It’s You Again” by Daniel Kleitman")
* * *
Sometimes I almost look forward to becoming senile - back to homely naive realism and one-world classical physics.
("Even Physicists Find the Multiverse Faintly Disturbing")
Everettian quantum mechanics prompts thoughts of the inconceivably good and bad. Let's hope it's false.
("Are Terrible Quantum States Phenomenal?")
Either Satan fine-tuned the universal fundamental constants to create suffering or we live in a multiverse.
("Wrestling With the Mysteries of Physics Is Good for Your Soul")
Not even God can create or destroy information. Is the information content of reality distinguishable from zero?
("Nobody Knows Where a Black Hole's Information Goes")
I hope sceptics are right, but contra Peter Woit, the zero information content of the multiverse may actually be a theoretical virtue.
("Searching for God at the Center of the Big Bang")
Or did Nature get there first? A pack of decohered classical neurons couldn't run one's classical world-simulation.
("Quantum computer 'construction plan' drawn up")
Does the superposition principle of QM ever break down? Can primordial information be created ex nihilo? I'm sceptical.
("Roger Penrose and the vision thing")
Alternatively, everyday life is a manifestation of the superposition principle in your CNS.
("What Effects Of Quantum Physics Can We Observe In Our Daily Lives?")
[on QM and mind]
Consciousness: some philosophers turn to dualism, drink or denial. I cling to monistic physicalism. But who knows?
Does quantum physics explain consciousness?. Yes.
Becky, on my view, we're all Schrödinger's cats. But neuronal superpositions underpin boring classical-looking worlds - leading perceptual direct realists to wonder why superpositions are never experienced.
A nice overview of the decoherence program and how "quantum Darwinism" explains the emergence of observer-independent classicality: https://aeon.co/essays/the-quantum-view-of-reality-might-not-be-so-weird-after-all ("Quantum common sense ")
No need to invoke a conscious mind to bring about an unphysical "collapse of the wavefunction”. Likewise, within the CNS, decoherence can explain the emergence from quantum reality of quasi-classical neurons as a Darwinian selection effect – though only if some kind of factorization of reality into subsystems is already assumed (cf. Jan-Markus Schwindt on the factorization problem https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf)
So are our phenomenal minds effectively classical information processors running effectively classical world-simulations? If so, I don’t see how. By what mechanism is the emergence of effectively classical neurons supposed to explain the unity of consciousness and the unity of perception? It’s a recipe for decohered micro-experiential zombies – as we are when dreamlessly asleep.
As conjectured in the Quora answer, IMO only a coherent quantum mind can run a phenomenally bound classical world-simulation that tracks fitness-relevant features of the mind-independent world. And what would otherwise be miraculous - a Divine Moviemaker to string quadrillions of phenomenally bound “cat states” into the well-behaved macroscopic world-simulation your mind is running now - can potentially be explained via an insanely powerful Darwinian selection-mechanism instead.
Nature’s version of a quantum suicide experiment? Fortunately, I'm probably mistaken.
A DIY revolution is coming to genetics and pharmacology.
("A DIY Pharmaceutical Revolution Is Coming—If It Doesn’t Kill Us First")
Consciousness: can a post-Galilean science of mind replace today's scholasticism?
(This Philosopher Thinks Psychedelic Drugs Lead to the Truth of Experience")
[on mind uploading]
Mass destructive uploading is one route to nirvana - just not in quite the sense believers have in mind.
(‘Your animal life is over. Machine life has begun.’ The road to immortality")
Adam, in my view, nonbiological quantum minds will one day be feasible. But not mind uploading. Anyone who believes that classical digital computers or classically parallel connectionist systems will one day be conscious, and that "mind uploading" is feasible, needs to offer a physicalist account of how phenomenal binding can be generated with such an architecture. What makes our minds special, IMO, is phenomenal binding: it's classically impossible. One can (like David Chalmers) interpret the ostensible structural mismatch between our phenomenally bound minds/world-simulations and the gross micro-architecture of the brain as evidence for dualism. Or (like me) you can predict that molecular matter-wave interferometry will disclose a perfect structural match between our minds and the formalism of physics - not the four-dimensional space-time of folk physics, but rather a complex-valued field in the extremely high-dimensional space of the wavefunction. (cf. physicalism.com) Either way, in my view ascribing minds to digital computers is anthropomorphic. Less politely, it's animism. * * *
Dualism is sterile. Materialist metaphysics is false. Non-materialist physicalism to the rescue! physicalism.com
("Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul. A philosopher’s lifelong quest to understand the making of the mind")
Are experiences non-identical with brain states? If so, we have dualism. On the other hand, if experiences are identical with brain states, then experiences can't be produced by a mechanism - because identity is not a causal relationship. Any scientifically adequate theory should "save the phenomena". Materialism can't explain (1) the existence, (2) causal efficacy, (3) diverse palette, and 4) phenomenal binding of conscious experience.
Non-materialist physicalism promises to explain all four. The entire mathematical machinery of modern physics is transposed to an idealist ontology. But the explanatory framework of non-materialist physicalism fails if the superposition principle of QM breaks down in the CNS – or if interferometry experiments detect the slightest collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. This is because if neurons were discrete classical objects, then organic minds would just be Jamesian “mind-dust”- just as we (effectively) are micro-experiential zombies in a dreamless sleep, or in a coma. When we are awake, on the other hand, IMO the phenomenally bound classical world-simulations we run are what a naturally evolved quantum computer feels like “from the inside”. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then don’t ask what consciousness is “for”: it’s the field-theoretic stuff of the world described by the formalism of QFT. Ask instead what non-psychotic binding is “for”. To appreciate the computational power of phenomenal binding harnessed to play a functional role in organic nervous systems, we need only consider syndromes where local or global binding even partially breaks down, e.g. simultanagnosia, cerebral akinetopsia (“motion blindness”), or florid schizophrenia.
A critic can object that hypothetical neuronal superpositions ("cat states") of distributed feature-processors can at most be functionless noise. Surely, no mechanism exists by which individual neuronal superpositions could be co-opted for doing useful computational work? Compare e.g. Hebbian learning over the kind of coarse-grained timescales that are modelled with artificial classically parallel connectionist systems. Indeed, the only place we ever find coherent neuronal superpositions – as distinct from anomalously robust coherence in intracellular microtubules - discussed in the scholarly literature (e.g. Tegmark, Schlosshauer) is to illustrate why they’d be both computationally useless and empirically irrelevant to our minds. Thermally (etc)-induced decoherence in the warm, wet CNS is too fast, powerful and uncontrollable for non-psychotic neuronal superpositions to unpin “local” binding into perceptual objects, let alone the global binding of a world-simulation or unitary self. Synchrony, not superposition, must (somehow) mediate phenomenal binding. No need to waste time - says the critic - doing real experiments with molecular matter-wave interferometry to probe for a (mis-)match between conscious mind and physics. (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6) Armchair reflection and back-of-an-envelope calculations of credible decoherence times suffice.
This dismissal is too quick, IMO. Quantum Darwinism (cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27zMdaBgt6g), set against the backdrop of no-collapse QM, is the most insanely powerful selection mechanism ever conceived. Few people outside the theoretical physics community have even heard of it. Assume for the sake of argument that non-materialist physicalism is true. Applied to the CNS, quantum Darwinism, i.e. the decoherence program in post Everett QM, promises an empirically adequate account of our phenomenally bound minds. Selection pressure of unimaginable intensity is unfolding right now. The same mechanism that explains the emergence of quasi-classical “branches” from underlying quantum reality in the wider universe (cf. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/the-emergent-multiverse-quantum-theory-according-to-the-everett-interpretation/) also explains the sculpting of neuronal superpositions to simulate gross fitness-relevant patterns in one’s local environment. Naïve realists call running such a world-simulation “observing” one’s surroundings. Naïve realism about perception misses the greatest computational achievement of organic minds over the past 540 million years.
To get some inkling of the selective power we’re considering, perhaps recall the intensity of selection pressure that plays out over the aeons to sculpt, say, the vertebrate eye. Now imagine selection pressure of analogous intensity exerted over every millisecond of your waking life. Note that “mangled” frames, psychotic frames, and deviant world-simulations are also real on such a conjecture too. You’re just unlikely to instantiate one of them. If you did, then you wouldn’t be reading this text. Everyday life is Nature’s version of a quantum suicide experiment – though as a negative utilitarian, I’m more inclined to say if you win, you lose. Applied within the CNS, the decoherence program allows the derivation - with a bit of handwaving - of weakly emergent quasi-classical neurons when you’re comatose. Likewise, when you’re asleep, or anaesthetised on a brain surgeon’s operating table, a pack of classical neurons is a good approximation of all that you are: just decohered neuronal mind-dust. The binding problem, as usually framed (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binding_problem#The_combination_problem), simply assumes that you’re a pack of decohered neurons when you’re awake, just as you are when dreamlessly asleep. Yet at least on my view, everyday waking life consists of quadrillions of neuronal ”cat states” that mediate your egocentric classical world-simulation. Physicists working on the foundations of QM scratch their heads over why - if the “bare formalism” of QM is complete - superpositions are never experienced, only inferred: the so-called Problem of Definite Outcomes. (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/0312059.pdf) What explains the seemingly non-unitary transformation of the state vector upon measurement into a definite state rather than a linear superposition of different states evolving according to the Schrödinger equation? “Seemingly” is the operative word here. In my view, only superpositions are ever experienced: without them, your mind would be forever unglued. It’s only the superposition principle that allows you to experience a determinate classical cat.
Naively, “quantum Darwinism” sounds like some pop-science metaphor, not a real Darwinian selection process. No so. The work of Zurek at al,. is technically quite demanding, but John Campbell conveys its gist in "Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process":
Do I really believe all this stuff? No. Non-materialist physicalism is just a conjecture. But it’s experimentally falsifiable – and that’s the key.
* * *
Chris, I guess there's a spectrum of confidence on mind-uploading that goes all the way from almost zero to nearly 100%. As you'll have gathered, my own scepticism focuses on the binding/combination problem and doubts about the existence of a clean digital abstraction layer. Yet even if uploading isn't literally feasible, we may still imagine routine use of e.g. digital mindfiles (cf. http://newatlas.com/mind-reading-complex-thoughts/50228/) to facilitate biological restoration / respawning. And of course a nonclassical analysis of phenomenal binding (or any other aspect of conscious mind) may be mistaken.
("Goertzel contra Dvorsky on mind-uploading/")
Without first-person facts, i.e. your phenomenally bound consciousness, you are not a mind. You are an information processing system that can be systematically interpreted as though it were a mind. Like being told that you are immortal because your formal representation crops up in pi - an infinite number of times - this is cool if it gives comfort. Universal destructive uploading would be a definitive solution to the problem of suffering. But digital sentience is a pipedream.
[on anxiety and stress]
Chill pills? Cool! Before knocking out your "pranayama neurons", first try modulating them with reversible drugs.
("Destroying a type of brain cell makes mice really chilled out")
Without opioids, life wouldn't be worth living. So how can the mind's miserly opioid supplies best be enriched?
("Boosting natural brain opioids may be a better way to treat anxiety")
No hope of a "revolution" if subjective well-being is conceived as an "adverse side effect" of medication:
("America’s Long-Overdue Opioid Revolution Is Finally Here")
All sentient beings love mu opioids.
("Given the choice, zebrafish willingly dose themselves with opioids")
Alas evolution often resembles a gigantic conspiracy to prevent sentient beings getting what we're after. Psychological and physical pain are overcome by targeting the same neurotransmitter system too...
("Chronic pain and depression are linked by brain gene changes")
Potentially very good news: can we prevent tolerance to the pain-relieving and mood-enriching effects of mu opioid agonists?
("Researchers identify source of opioids' side effects")
NFEPP: effective opioid-based pain relief?
("An opioid minus major side effects. Fluorinated version of fentanyl is active only in areas of inflammation, eliminating troublesome effects in rats.")
Even the most "notorious" opioids like Heroin would be more rewarding if combined with a centrally active kappa receptor antagonist (kappa is the "nasty" opioid receptor). Aside from the problem of tolerance, the other big challenge of using opioids to treat refractory depression is their tendency to make people not so much antisocial as asocial - a reflection of how the rest of us satisfy our habit. Opioids are probably one of the few effective cures for Facebook addiction, though I don't know of any controlled trials.
"Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!" (Thomas de Quincey)
Parrots need paradise too.
("Parrots flying high on drugs are annoying farmers by plundering poppy fields to feed their opium addiction")
But chronic SSRI use may also lower motivation.
("Increased serotonin could ramp up motivation by lowering the perceived cost of putting in effort")
See too SSRI-induced indifference.
Push-button dominance? Low mood is associated with subordination and defeat. But is the technology to create biological "alphas" a recipe for social conflict?
("Scientists discover brain's neural switch for becoming an alpha male")
Psychiatry: a predisposition to lifelong mental health is genetically abnormal. Time for "unnatural" well-being?
("Mental Illness Is Far More Common Than We Knew")
The sick zero-sum games of Darwinian life:
("The mood-enhancing effects of revenge")
Can the vagus nerve supplant the pineal gland in neuromythology?
("From decapitation to positive psychology: how one nerve connects body, brain and mind")
The ability to rationalise suffering is good, but life based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss is better.
("Why bad moods are good for you: The surprising benefits of sadness")
Get ahead of whom to do what?
Can humans transcend the zero-sum status games of the African savannah?
("How to get ahead in the era of the show-off")
Intelligent use of biotechnology can engineer euphoric realism.
("Depressed people see the world more realistically")
Humble minds need personal space too.
("Too near, or too far? What fruit flies teach us about personal space")
Probably beyond fruit flies but a reminder of how similar nonhumans are to juvenile humans...
("Chimpanzees learn rock-paper-scissors")
Optimism: cognitive bias that falls just short of outright psychosis is good for health and longevity
("A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health")
Risk-reduction: should boardroom meetings & world summits be conducted in snow-bound alpine retreats?
("Cold temperatures perceived in a photo increase cognitive control")
Can immersive VR and AI make each of us feel Important?
Or can biotech help us transcend zero-sum primate status games?
Either way, it's going to be a long haul...
("Cracking the Popularity Code")
Is quality of life improved without a right hemisphere?
Perhaps try a Wada test first...
Life with One Hemisphere
Neuroanatomy is destiny? Of can enhancing the anterior superior temporal sulcus make us smarter and more forgiving?
("It's the thought that counts: The neuro-anatomical basis of forgiveness revealed")
Millions of state-spaces of consciousness as different as sight and sound await exploration by posthuman psychonauts
("66-year-old colorblind man overwhelmed to see colors for first time")
“Hate the sin, love the sinner." (Gandhi)
How can we phase out the biology of hatred?
("The Point of Hate")
Says who? Let's use biotechnology to make all sentient beings feel super-significant.
("The purpose of life is to be a nobody")
Social justice warriors don't train in gymnasiums.
("Muscular men less likely to support social and economic equality, study suggests")
"The pronoun is one of the most terrifying masks man has invented." (John Fowles)
("It's really about me, not 'you': People often use the word 'you' rather than 'I' to cope with negative experiences")
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot)
May all Darwinian life soon be forgotten.
("Humans selectively edit reality before accepting it, a review of decades of social and economic behavior shows")
Testosterone is anti-introspection. Will future minds be more or less "male'? Superintelligence?
("Mindfulness only works for women, Brown University Study Suggests")
How at any age does a massively parallel neural network "focus" and generate serial logico-linguistic thought?
("Your Ability to Focus Has Probably Peaked: Here’s How to Stay Sharp")
Does your fiercest critic lie without or within...?
("Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking")
The psychology of "sorry": liberals apologise more than conservatives, women more than men, and depressives more than dominant alpha males.
("No apology tour for conservatives: Study shows liberals more likely to say I’m sorry")
By temperament, I'm a chronic apologiser - a liberal depressive with a not-very-male mind. But in public, at least, I try to keep the apologising in check. If one has a message to sell - HI! - it's more effective to masquerade as a dominant alpha male primate.
("Why women apologize more than men: gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior")
Peacocking: the plumage may vary but the core strategy hasn't changed.
("When it comes to peacock mating, plumage size matters: study")
("Longer deadlines make people donate more money")
Evolution has made us social drug addicts. Rather than withdrawal and abstinence, experts urge us to renew the habit...
("Why rejection hurts so much — and what you can do to ease the pain")
Genetic malware that is born to suffer. How can the circle of misery best be overcome?
("An evolutionary psychologist explains why you will always be haunted by high school")
Can we think of any way artificially to boost the world's finite supply of attention? Worse than being finite, attention is zero-sum: if folk are paying attention to you, they're not paying attention to me - a built-in recipe for endless conflict. Zero-sum competition for attention and recognition is a more serious problem than it sounds. Perhaps AI will partly solve the supply problem. Instead of today's crude chatbots, imagine a legion of dedicated admirers who hang on your every word! Maybe they are really only zombies. But there are quite a few radical eliminativists about consciousness in my circle of acquaintance I like to be noticed by too.
Perhaps we should get off social media and start interacting face-to-face with real robots.
("Too Much Social Media Use Linked to Feelings of Isolation")
Are you a truffle hound for the truth or a casual grazer?
("Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist")
Treating the classical world one hallucinates as reality is insane, but the alternative is losing one's mind.
("Hallucinations Are Far More Common Than We've Been Led to Believe, Study Suggests")
Until we upgrade our reward circuitry, mental health depends on an optimal mix of delusions and ignorance.
("The link between your belief in free will, and your happiness")
Should life be based on gradients of intelligent bliss (cf. gradients.com) or rationalised suffering?
("The psychological benefits of being in a bad mood")
Alas one's bad moods rarely bring psychological benefits to others either.
Alternatively, intense core emotions originate in the limbic system. Emotions may be "encephalised" via the neocortex.
("Joseph LeDoux Reports: Emotions Are “Higher-Order States” LeDoux's new hypothesis is: 'A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness.'")
In a Darwinian world, it's not yet safe to be chilled...
("Meditating mice’ reveal secrets of mindfulness training")
Some more hardwired than others...
("Humans are hard-wired to follow the path of least resistance")
How (fe)male is your mind?
("Key to keeping friendships alive different for men and women, scientists say")
"Being negative is like spraying yourself with anti-charisma." (Karen Salmonsohn)
Oh dear. How many charismatic negative utilitarians do you know?
("The Anatomy of Charisma. What makes a person magnetic and why we should be wary")
In a Darwinian world, it's not yet safe to be chilled...
("'Meditating mice’ reveal secrets of mindfulness training")
Always? Alas some organic robots struggle to formulate Plan A.
("Your brain always has a backup plan")
Psychological pain can be treated with drugs or gene therapy. The neurotransmitter system responsible is taboo.
("How to Prevent Suicide with an Opioid. Fascinating study suggests treating 'psychache'")
How can compulsive behaviour be reconciled with the pleasure principle / psychological hedonism?
("Compulsive behaviour? It may make more sense than you think")
surprising number of people can't recognize faces — sometimes even their own")
And probably some fish:
("Smart fish can recognise human faces, scientists find")
How can we make a future worth knowing?
("Want to Know the Future? Most People Don't, Study Suggests")
("Organization for the Prevention of Extreme Suffering")
Compassion born of empathy is the vital first spark for building a world without intense suffering - and ultimately, I hope, for building a world without any form of suffering or even experience below "hedonic zero". However, let’s assume, optimistically, that global consensus can be achieved for such a long-term vision. Unless intelligent moral agents then adopt the cognitive style of "autistic" hyper-systematisers, severe and prolonged suffering will persist indefinitely. Life on Earth won’t be much better off than if the biosphere were run by my ultra-compassionate friend who spends half her life rescuing cats and the mice they maul. How many people would claim, if asked in the abstract, that they'd support the WHO aspiration of good health for all - human and nonhumans alike - and then balk at what delivering such a promise will entail? ("Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being") Unless we're hard-headedly prepared to use CRISPR-based biotech, rewrite our genetic source code, and stop producing misery-ridden offspring, then millions of years of suffering lie ahead of us as well as behind us.
"Experiential avoidance": mine seems to have been getting worse of late...
I guess a classical utilitarian AGI would euthanize all Darwinian life with a utilitronium shockwave - and without the formalities of a consent form...
("'Dying together was their deepest wish': Couple, 91, die in rare double euthanasia")
[on "smart drugs" / nootropics]
If aerobic exercise were a patentable pill, then we'd all be taking the miracle smart drug:
("Sleep and exercise could be as powerful as any 'smart drug'")
Only a small study, though it confirms earlier reports...
("Blueberry concentrate improves brain function in older people") EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) is good for cognitive health:
("Green tea ingredient may ameliorate memory impairment, brain insulin resistance, and obesity")
Eat your greens...
("Lutein, found in leafy greens, may counter cognitive aging")
Would our cognitive performance be most improved by better memory or smarter amnesia?
("Forgetting can make you smarter")
Smart chocolate? Cocoa flavanols as cognitive enhancers...
("Cocoa and chocolate are not just treats — they are good for your cognition")
#Fisetin: are smart drugs or strawberries the best recipe for cognitive health?
("More evidence shows natural plant compound may reduce mental effects of aging")
"Smart drugs": how smart, how risky?
("Brain Hackers Seeking Peak Performance Use Risky Chemical Cocktails. “Smart drugs” are not clinically proven and could be dangerous")
TIMP2: the cognitive benefits of becoming a vampire.
("Young human blood makes old mice smarter")
Ghrelin: a potential cognitive enhancer?
("Hungry stomach hormone promotes growth of new brain cells")
[on eliminativism about consciousness]
Brian Tomasik and I sometimes talk past each other.
What's it like to be a conciousnesss anti-realist?
“When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” (Dawn of the Dead)
("Is consciousness real?")
The fatal flaw of materialist metaphysics is failing the test of empirical adequacy. Materialism forces the faithful either to speak gravely of the "Hard Problem" of consciousness or renounce their own sentience. In response to proselytising zombies like Daniel Dennett, the non-materialist physicalist can argue that physical science no more entails the existence of fields of insentience than Maxwell’s equations demand the existence of luminiferous aether. I doubt this argument will shake believers.
Thanks Mike. I'd recommend anyone who hasn't yet done so to read "Principia Qualia" (and also Dennett's latest, "From Bacteria to Bach and Back", which is insightful and infuriating by turns).
If consciousness doesn’t exist, why are so many zombie brains so keen to talk about it and explore its varieties (cf. https://www.erowid.org/experiences/exp_front.shtml) – or, in the case of some kinds of alleged consciousness like migraines, to get to rid of it?
Perhaps compare religious folk. As secular rationalists, we’ll want to say that the mystical experiences, or the allegedly divine voices, undergone by the believer are radically different from what their subject interprets them to be. What we won't do, unless we suspect deliberate fakery, is deny the phenomenology of the mystical experiences or the voices themselves. Maybe the believer is schizophrenic, but this diagnosis doesn’t make his experiences any less real.
Now compare the thought-episodes, or any other sensory or nonsensory experiences, that you are undergoing right now. Yes, we should each be open to the possibility that we radically misconceive the nature of such experience. I guess Brian or Dennett would say that our brains are tricking us. What simply won't work is the claim that the illusion itself is illusory – that there is no phenomenology for us to be radically mistaken about. By all means tell me that the vivid oasis I behold is just a mirage. But if you don't believe in mirages either, then so much the worse for your theory.
That said, even ardent qualia-philes should try to understand why eliminativists feel compelled to deny the reality of their own experience - even the minimal solipsism-of-the-here-and-now of the cogito. How can the existence of first-person experience be reconciled with the success of natural science? Doesn’t all chemistry, and all of the biosciences, ultimately reduce to fundamental physics as captured by the Standard Model?
One very radical re-interpretation of your experiences is non-materialist physicalism – the conjecture that experience discloses the essence of the physical, the elusive “fire” in the equations on which physics is silent. On this story, your brain doesn’t cause your experiences – identity isn’t a causal relationship – rather, your brain is your experiences - bound experiences when you’re awake or dreaming, unbound when you’re in a dreamless sleep. Because non-materialist physicalism is indeed a form of physicalism, it's testable. As David Chalmers and others have recognised, if some "element of reality", notably phenomenal binding, is present in consciousness and demonstrably absent from the formalism of science (i.e. ultimately physics) then non-materialist physicalism is false. Critically, any scientific claim that consciousness is or isn’t a classical or quantum phenomenon should make novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/#6) by which we can put it to the test.
* * *
Roko short of e.g. rigging up a reversible thalamic bridge, no, I can't directly access your first-person experience. But all science depends on some version of the principle of the uniformity of Nature. Science says neither of us are special. If, for example, I self-administer a selective kappa opioid agonist and experience dysphoria and you report likewise, then I can't be completely certain that you undergo the same type of experience as me, or indeed any experience at all. It's just an inference to the best explanation.
Video game characters? Like all digital computers, they are just zombies IMO. Phenomenal binding isn’t classical. But my idiosyncratic ideas on the nature of mind would take us far afield. High-tech Jainism applied to video games? Well, I play Hitman Sniper in the hope of designing a mod that lets Agent 47 give everyone hugs. Alas, I haven’t had much success so far.
Every language needs primitive terms. But in the case of "physical" pain, for instance, subjects all agree that activity in dorsal posterior insula correlates with the intensity of the unpleasant experience. In other words, suffering is "objectively" quantifiable - despite the methodological challenges.
("'Ouch zone' in the brain identified")
* * *
Roko, our minds aren't universal quantum computers. But local and global phenomenal binding are insanely computationally powerful. Phenomenal binding allows your CNS to run a real-time world-simulation of your extracranial environment that would leave DARPA’s finest number-crunching until Doomsday. But how? Perceptual direct realists simply help themselves to the greatest computational feat of organic minds over the past 540 million years. The problem is phenomenal binding is classically impossible – “magic”, or at least "naturalistic" Chalmersian dualism. However, classical physics is a false theory of the world. Why suppose a false theory of the world will yield a true explanation of our phenomenally bound minds? For sure, "substrate” is functionally incidental to classical digital computers. Substrate is not functionally incidental to information-processing systems that rely on quantum coherence to bind. Unless the unitary Schrodinger dynamics breaks down in the CNS, at temporally fine-grained resolutions you consist of individual neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors, not an aggregate of decohered neuronal mind-dust.
I suspect many/most readers will be rolling their eyes at this point. Fair enough! Yet in order to make progress, we'll have to move beyond deeply-felt intuitions of plausibility and focus on empirically falsifiable consequences that discriminate rival hypotheses. If a conjecture makes weird predictions, then this is good – the weirder the better. Thus both dynamical collapse (e.g. Orch-OR) and no-collapse theories of quantum mind that conserve unitarity make claims that are "objectively" falsifiable by molecular-matter-wave interferometry.
"I still don't see why anything here makes us interested in the substrate of a computation". Roko, yes, substrate is wholly incidental to the operation of a classical Turing machine. As a thought-experiment, perhaps imagine that 1s and 0s are replaced by discrete “micro-pixels” of experience (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_machine) The machine operates just as before. On pain of spooky "strong" emergence – and irrespective of how fast the machine runs – no unified subject of experience “emerges”, no phenomenally bound perceptual objects, no unity of perception, just a micro-experiential zombie. Depending on the program being executed, maybe we can talk of the functional analogues of phenomenal binding. But there’s still no one at home – it’s not even “all dark inside” – just decohered pixels of “mind-dust" The same is true of a classically parallel connectionist information processing system. Even though we have notionally "solved" the Hard Problem of consciousness by positing micro-pixels of experience rather than the usual water-into-wine magic, all we've got for our pains is a micro-experiential zombie.
Now instead of fleeting classical micro-pixels, imagine fleeting neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) of experience. No problem of phenomenal binding here: superpositions are individual states. But intuitively, such states are functionally useless – totally psychotic and hopelessly short-lived on account of decoherence. In the absence of a Divine Moviemaker, surely there’s no Darwinian selection mechanism to turn psychotic quantum noise, i.e. phase-coherent neuronal “cat states”, into the well-behaved classical world-simulation that your mind is running now?
Intuition may be correct. But quantum Darwinism (cf. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf) is the most insanely powerful selection mechanism that the human imagination has ever conceived – and the selection mechanism operates inside your skull, not just to generate an approximation of classicality in the mind-independent world. I take seriously the conjecture that such ultra Darwinian selection pressure sculpts your skull-bound mind and the world-simulation it runs. If you think this all sounds desperately implausible, well, I promise I do too. But that’s not the point. If alleged binding via classical synchrony is really quantum superposition, then the non-classical interference signature exists “objectively” to prove it. Or not – and the conjecture fails.
"Only the true conservative can be a true revolutionary”, Heisenberg once said. Despite the bunch of novel predictions that this account of consciousness and phenomenal binding entails, note there's no new physics here – no modification or supplementation of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, just taking what is naively the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind as an experimentally falsifiable prediction.
Valence? Mike, I fear my work isn't ideal for your purposes because I simply assume hedonic tone realism - just as (until recently) I simply assumed consciousness realism, rather than explicitly arguing in its favour. Of course, there is always a risk when someone says that their raw experiences are "self-intimating" that they smuggle in too much theoretical baggage. But especially if (as did my younger self) one has tried seriously mood-altering recreational drugs, then the acute "raw feels" of intense well-being followed by the "raw feels” of sadness/melancholia are beyond theory: just felt reality. Tellingly, the high testosterone of high AQ/IQ hyper-systematising males may be described as "anti-emotion" and “anti-introspection”: testosterone functionally antagonises oxytocin. Compare the profound emotional release and introspective clarity promoted by "entactogenic" drugs, notably MDMA, which is better known as an empathogen. (Compare too the preference shift in symmetry across the menstrual cycle, with its rise and fall of natural testosterone levels https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607552/) Anyhow, if it weren’t for the serious ethical pitfalls, the obvious solution to valence scepticism is experimental: trying fast-acting drugs that activate the neurotransmitter system most directly implicated hedonic tone. opioids.com
* * *
In one sense, I agree with radical eliminativists. All that exists are physical facts. The difference is that I suspect experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, whereas eliminativists don’t believe in subjective experience at all. Despite their professions to the contrary, eliminativists aren’t IMO really zombies. Rather, eliminativists (1) introspect differently from typical sentients; and (2) treat what I’d call their conscious egocentric world-simulations as the mind-independent physical world itself. Eric Schwitzgebel, in his otherwise astute analysis of differences between introspectors, seems to regard exteroception as unproblematic. ["Descartes, I think, had it quite backwards when he said the mind— including especially current conscious experience—was better known than the outside world": http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzPapers/Naive1.pdf] By way of distinction, world-simulationists believe that each of us is a conscious mind trapped within the confines of his or her or her transcendental skull, regardless of whether we’re awake or dreaming (cf. “The Brain is wider than the Sky…”)
"Transcendental skull?" Stuart, sorry, the unfamiliarity of the term is an illustration of just how deeply entrenched is perceptual direct realism in our conceptual scheme. Let's say you're having a lucid dream. You know that your body-image, including your skull, is mind-dependent - it's located within your transcendental cranium. What happens when you "wake up"? Well, if you're a perceptual naïve realist, then you directly apprehend the mind-independent physical world and your body. But if you are a world-simulationist, then the role of the mind-independent environment isn't to leave its signature on your experiences, but rather to select them.
Compare the "phantom limb" of an amputee. S/he lacks a "transcendental" leg, but her empirical leg is as phenomenally real as ever.
* * *
Adam, two approaches to the formalism of physics.
The first is anti-realism / instrumentalism. The mathematical machinery of quantum physics is just a useful tool that lets “observers” make empirical predictions. An example here would be the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of QM and its recent modifications like Quantum Bayesianism.
The second approach is realism. The bare formalism of quantum mechanics is complete. What sounds like mere abstract mathematical trickery is actually an isomorphic description of reality. I assume realism. Mathematical physics yields an exhaustive description of the relational-structural properties of the world. Physical reality is a field in a high-dimensional conﬁguration space...
Yet a field of what exactly? The intrinsic nature of the physical is still an open question. [John Wheeler used a different metaphor: “What makes the universe fly?” - http://www.dannychesnut.com/Science/SmScaleStructure/TheoryOfTheories.htm] The obvious, intuitive answer is: something non-sentient. The essence of physical is entirely devoid of phenomenal properties: But we don’t know this for a fact; it’s a plausible metaphysical assumption. The assumption leads to the Hard Problem. The bold move of non-materialist physicalism is to “turn Kant on his head”, as it were. My own introduction to the inversion was through the work of philosopher Michael Lockwood. But the basic idea dates back via Grover Maxwell and Russell to (ultimately) Schopenhauer. Rather than the intrinsic (“noumenal”) nature of the physical world being unknowable because we’re trapped within the empirical world of phenomena, it’s precisely one’s own phenomenal mind that discloses the intrinsic nature of the “fire” in the equations, the essence of the physical. What makes the subjective experience of our minds special isn’t its ontological novelty but the way our experience is phenomenally bound.
Phenomenal binding is hugely functionally adaptive for biological organisms – compare its partial breakdown in simultanagnosia or akinetopsia. But then so would be e.g. telepathy! The challenge for non-materialist physicalism is to show how something classically impossible is physically feasible. Recall how the “structural mismatch” between our phenomenally bound minds and a pack of classical neurons is what drives David Chalmers to dualism, not the inconceivability of experience being ontologically fundamental.
I don’t know if non-materialist physicalism is true. If the only alternatives to non-materialist physicalism are radical eliminativism about phenomenal consciousness or Chalmersian dualism, it’s a live candidate.
* * *
Do radical eliminativists about consciousness like Daniel Dennett have a generalisation of aphantasia?
("When I try to imagine my girlfriend’s face, I draw a blank")
Some consciousness researchers are experimentalists who try to expand their evidential base. Alexander Shulgin opened up new state spaces of consciousness - pioneering a new methodology for developing and testing psychoactive compounds that disclose outlandish state-spaces of experience that the drug-naïve mind can’t conceive.
By contrast, some philosophers try to shrink their evidential base - or in the case of eliminative materialists and behaviourists, try persuade themselves that they aren't conscious. A few eliminativists like Daniel Dennett go further still and evangelise, attempting to persuade other people that they are literally zombies. Materialism is a powerful ideology that trades on the prestige of science and technology. But calling materialist metaphysics – and in in particular the ontology of eliminative materialism – “scientific” is a misnomer. Physicalism may be true: it’s my working assumption. But that’s a separate issue.
There are ethical implications of eliminativism too. Like behaviourism in the 20th century, which claimed that talk of the suffering of nonhuman animals was “unscientific”, eliminativism stunts empathy for other sentient beings, human and nonhuman, impoverishing our understanding. Here admittedly we must be cautious. Plenty of theories that turned out to be true were originally criticised on the grounds they would tend to corrupt public morals. But relegating the first-person experience of sentient beings to some kind of second-rate ontological status, or in the case of radical behaviourists and eliminative materialists, denying that first-person experience exists at all, is not just bad philosophy but morally harmful pseudoscience.
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Brian, several issues here. Rob posed a dilemma. In response, I argued that its horns are avoided if non-materialist physicalism is true, i.e. there’s nothing inconsistent about being a physicalist and claiming that consciousness has the causal efficacy to allow talking about its own existence – as I’m apparently doing now! But how is this causal efficacy functionally possible? Even if non-materialist physicalism is true, then as you suggest, we can still imagine “implementing” the functional-behavioural approximation of both a consciousness realist and a radical eliminativist on a classical digital computer. Both implementations would be micro-experiential zombies - not phenomenally bound unitary subjects of experience. According to this thought-experiment, we could systematically interpret the digital radical eliminativist as stating – correctly! – that he isn’t a subject of experience. And we could systematically interpret the digital consciousness realist as pleading – mistakenly! - his own sentience.
So how are biological minds different from digital zombies? I suspect our background assumptions are quite far apart here. If I understand you correctly, you believe in the physical reality of different levels computational abstraction - "software". Surely, abstractions can’t do any real causal work – they are just a convenient fiction?? By contrast, IMO reality has only one level – all that exists is really only hardware, so to speak. Any true explanation must ultimately be “cashed out” in terms of this one level: quantum physics. And in the view I explore, one’s mind/phenomenal world-simulation discloses a tiny part of the “hardware” of reality as it is in itself – the essence of the physical, the fire in the equations of QFT. Critically here, single-level reality doesn’t mean that all information processors are functionally alike. If the CNS functioned like the circuitry of a digital computer, and if neurons were really discrete, decohered classical objects, then you’d be nothing but micro-experiential zombie – just like the thought-experiment involving digitally implemented eliminativists and consciousness realists above. IMO, our minds – and tomorrow’s futuristic nonbiological computers – tap into a fundamental property of reality that is hugely functionally fitness-enhancing for biological organisms: non-psychotic phenomenal binding. Classical digital computers can’t phenomenally bind. At best, programmable digital computers and “trained up” connectionist systems can use workarounds - sometimes very impressive:
Anyhow, I won’t go off into my quantum mind spiel. [What happens when the insanely powerful selection pressure of Zurek’s "quantum Darwinism" plays out in the CNS? https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf] Here instead let’s just focus on indexical self-reference, e.g. this particular self-intimating thought: I’ll leave you to have a self-referential thought-episode of your own. Yes, I agree with you: it’s problematic how such indexical thought - and our physically talking about indexical thought - is functionally possible if physicalist consciousness realism is true, although IMO indexical thought is directly analogous to a self-imtimating micro-pain in some primitive insect cephalic ganglion. But the point I want to make is that the radical eliminativist is in the same boat. What could be the zombie counterpart of self-reference? Yes, one can program a digital zombie – or “train up” a classically parallel connectionist system – to exhibit behaviour that we might systematically interpret as self-reference. But do you believe that indexical thought is literally possible for a zombie?
Both the radical eliminativist and the non-materialist physicalist want to save monistic physicalism from the spectre of “strong” emergence or Chalmersian dualism. But of course we do so in utterly different ways – the radical eliminativist (e.g. you, Brian, Dennett) by proposing that consciousness is an illusion (but not a conscious illusion!), the non-materialist physicalist (e.g. Strawson, me) by proposing that consciousness is the essence of the physical.
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("Phenomenal consciousness is a quasiperceptual illusion: Objections and replies")
Question: Rob, are you a direct realist about perception?
The reason I ask is because, as far as I can tell, radical eliminativism must assume that we have some prior conceptual handle on the nature of the physical rather than – in the manner of the traditional Cartesian epistemologist - starting from the foundations of one’s own consciousness experience, including one’s phenomenal world-simulation, and going on to infer the existence of the mind-independent world described by (ultimately) physics as an inference to the best explanation.
On your point about the essence of the physical – experiential or nonexperiential – making no difference to the laws of physics, we don’t know this: in my view, it’s just an expression of our ignorance not knowing why the solutions to the equations of physics yield the felt textures they do – or in the case of a notional zombie world, not yielding any textures of experience at all. (However, I struggle with the idea of zombie self-reference, e.g. this indexical conscious thought episode.) Perhaps compare someone who claims that the essence of the physical is divine soul-stuff playing itself in accordance with the equations of QFT. Neither you nor I believe this scenario is really physically possible. I'll say my experience feels distinctly unspiritual, but this assertion won’t faze the believer: it’s just a reflection of my low level of spiritual development. Indeed, some spiritually-minded folk have seized on Hawking’s acknowledgment (“we have no idea what breathes fire in the equations”) to make just such a claim about a spiritual essence to reality without challenging the sovereignty of the physical formalism.
Either way, I confess I’m floundering. As someone who (in his early youth) extensively explored consciousness-altering drugs, and thereby hoped to expand my evidential base, I find the eliminativist perspective almost incomprehensibly alien - but I do my best to try to understand it.
[I was about to apologise for the feeling of frustration my reply is likely to cause you. Then I realised the phenomenal experience of frustration is one of the very things you were contesting existed. Yes, as I said, I’m floundering!]
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The autistic component of general intelligence is often conflated with rationality or general intelligence itself. People who have extremely high AQ/IQ not merely "read" other minds differently from low-AQ neurotypicals; they understand their own minds differently too. Compare the anti-introspective effect of testosterone and the "extreme male brain" theory of high AQ. Anyhow, I'm not urging that we use more pop-psychology. Ideas should generally be examined on their own terms rather than psychoanalysing their proponents. But when it comes to radical eliminativism, I struggle to make intellectual sense of what is being said so I can properly engage. In Eliezer’s case, he's not a radical eliminativist. However, Eliezer doesn't believe that e.g. prelinguistic human toddlers, nonhuman animals, or any cognitive agent lacking the capacity for meta-cognition are conscious. They are just zombies. More radically still, Daniel Dennett (non-consciously?) believes that we are all zombies! Low-AQ folk are more likely to take feelings and emotions, pains and pleasures - their own and others' - as paradigm cases of conscious experience.
I wonder what's the best way forward - so we don't just end up talking past each other?
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Brian, contra David Chalmers, you, me and Rob all think that monistic physicalism is true. There is no “element of reality” missing from the formalism of physics – or at least the equations of tomorrow’s TOE and their solutions. But we set about trying to save physicalism in radically different ways!
My point of departure is traditional. All I‘ve access to is the contents of my own conscious mind - phenomenal world-simulation and all. Even basic assumptions can be questioned. I recall once wondering if I was dreaming and then trying to read a book to test the possibility. I couldn’t read it – the blurred lines of text kept oscillating on the page. Dreaming consciousness is demonstrably different from waking consciousness. And whether you’re dreaming or awake, everything beyond the contents of one’s own conscious mind is a theoretical inference to the best explanation: scientific realism. The bold move of non-materialist physicalism is to reject the scientifically plausible idea that reality consists of physical fields of insentience (as formally described by QFT) that sometimes manifests as sentience and instead propose that sentience is the essence of the physical (as formally described by QFT). Experience is ubiquitous – a view not to be confused with animism. If so, then every feature of our minds must be isomorphic to some of the solutions to the equations of physics – even though we don’t know how to “read off” such features from the solutions to the equations. However, the only reason I have for inferring that the intrinsic nature of the physical may be experiential is the phenomenal contents of my own mind – together with the scientifically grounded assumption that I’m not ontologically special.
By contrast, if you and other eliminativists disbelieve in the very existence of conscious experience, then the possibility that the essence of the physical might be experiential is a non-starter. Eliminativists turn traditional epistemology on its head. If I understand you rightly, you (non-consciously?) believe that we all have some kind of prior conceptual handle on the nature of the physical – and then proceed to try to understand what most people conceive as consciousness as some kind of false theoretical inference which they draw. Maybe if we each (somehow) enjoyed direct perceptual access to a mind-independent world of medium-sized physical objects, then the fact that we don’t yet understand the intrinsic nature of the “fire” in the equations of physics would be important. We’d already have some crude notion of the “physical” to rely on: our everyday macroscopic world. But for multiple reasons, I don’t think perceptual direct realism is scientifically tenable.
Now to the bit you say you don’t follow me on - though I worry I may have lost you already! The behaviour of a classical digital computer is determined entirely by the laws of quantum physics – the “fire” in the equations does all the causal work - but we normally assume that this fundamental physical level can be cleanly “quarantined off”: it’s wholly incidental for our explanatory purposes. Using a silicon or gallium arsenide (or whatever) CPU to execute programs makes no difference for the purposes of our anthropocentric interests. Nonetheless all the “functional” work of a digital computer is still done entirely by brute causal processes - just as is the “functional” work of the human heart or liver. Likewise with our minds – or so macro-functionalists assume. The behaviour of the CNS is determined entirely in accordance with the laws of quantum physics too – the “fire” in the equations does all the work - but normally we assume that this fundamental level, whatever it may be, can be “quarantined off”: there’s some sort of clean digital abstraction layer that may one day allow digital “mind-uploading”. Thus it would make no difference, the macro-functionalist argues, if biological neurons were replaced by their silicon or gallium arsenide counterparts. What counts is connectivity – the connections and activation weights – of our “connectome”, not low-level stuff like the unique valence properties of carbon or liquid water.
Well, this is certainly the obvious parallel. If by “consciousness” we mostly have in mind the late evolutionary novelty of logico-linguistic thinking rather than our phenomenal world-simulations, then conceptualising one’s mind as a substrate-neutral virtual machine somehow sitting on top of massive (classically) parallel neural networks is appealing. Yet as William James, Anti Revonsuo and most recently, David Chalmers have recognised, such an assumption leads to intellectual disaster. Within your world-simulation in front of your body-image, perhaps you see e.g. a classical-looking black cat. Neuroscience can – quite independently – show discrete feature-processing neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, and colour-mediating (etc) neurons are synchronously firing when you undergo the experience of seeing the cat. And yet if (1) physicalism is true, and (2) if neurons are membrane-bound classical objects, then there is no way that we know of to derive the experience of phenomenally bound black cat from such decohered neuronal “mind-dust”. No, I can’t prove that a bunch of decohered neurons / “pixels” of experience are incapable of generating a classical-looking cat - any more than I can prove that a bunch of intercommunicating skull-bound American minds can’t generate a phenomenal cat. But creating such feline apparitions would involve spooky unphysicalist “strong” emergence. Intuitively, yes, as you suggest, the world’s hardware, the "fire" in the equations, is functionally incidental to our behaviour, a mere implementation detail. As an intelligent quantum robin might say, “Not so”:
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Thanks Brian. Alas eliminativists are uniquely resistant to being hypnotised.
OK, is the ontological primitive(s) we assume as the intrinsic nature of the physical a "trivial" question? If our root-metaphor of mind and reality is a classical digital computer, then perhaps yes – or at least, the issue can be bracketed off as just the metaphysical question of why anything exists at all. Formally, we can agree, the behaviour of the stuff of the world can be described field-theoretically (let's ignore speculative extensions of QFT like M-theory here). But fields of what? Insentience, experience, soul-stuff – contemporary physics says nothing. For the purposes of doing mathematical physics, the essence of the physical doesn’t matter: it’s a “philosophical” question. Likewise, if our model of mind derives from a classical Turing machine, then the intrinsic nature of the physical is functionally incidental.
However, a constraint on our theorising is empirical adequacy. Assuming that non-sentience is the essence of physical makes us literally zombies – as both radical eliminativists and non-materialist physicalists recognise, but draw very different conclusions! I’m still mystified by how your… I want to say…your experience...can be so alien from mine. For a start, there’s more to my here-and-now than a propositional attitude to semantic content that may be true or false; for example, I believe that I'm conscious. There’s the subjective, introspectable experience of my belief-episode itself and all the rest of the phenomenal contents of my here-and-now too. I’m more than open to the idea that humans typically radically misconceive our own experience – which is sometimes what I think that you must be arguing. Indeed the conjecture that experience discloses the essence of the physical is an extreme example of one such radical reinterpretation. But such experience is still…well, experience. We’re back to the Cartesian cogito.
Phenomenal binding? Yes, Dennett would say something like you suggest about the cat. By analogy again, let's adapt Eric Schwitzgebel’s, “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably conscious" to a perhaps more credible thesis. If the population of the USA were co-opted into implementing the appropriate computation, then the USA would become conscious: a pan-continental subject of phenomenal experience who sees, for example, a cat. Perhaps a Dennettian radical eliminativist would say that the consequent feeling of mental unity - and this phenomenally bound, pan-continental cat-experience - is just a story the pan-continental nervous system tells itself when asked, "Do you see a unified cat?" In this thought-experiment, the pan-continental mind/nervous system answers, "Yes, I do", even though different pieces of information about the cat, the counterparts of distributed neuronal feature-processors in the CNS, are represented in different places in the USA - in distributed skull-bound American minds. Yet how, and why, is such (seeming) experiential unity created? OK, I find this whole idea incredible. As I said, we can't rule out a USA-is-conscious scenario. But it's not a physicalist conjecture: the supposed pan-continental cat-apparition is irreducible to skull-bound feature-processing minds and their reciprocal feature-signalling. Much more controversially, IMO the same irreducibility on pain of “strong” emergence follows in the CNS if we simply assume that neurons are discrete classical objects signalling to each other across synaptic clefts - rather than attempting to derive the quasi-classicality of decohered neurons in the same way Zurek et al. attempt derive the emergence of classicality from quantum reality in the mind-independent environment. (cf. http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms8908) Like “quantum robins”, IMO our phenomenal minds functionally tap into the very stuff of the world. Phenomenal binding is an insanely powerful adaptation of biological minds - and as far as I can tell it’s classically impossible.
The functionality of consciousness? I guess when you and I use the term "consciousness", we must have different senses in mind. In the case of a classical computer, whether we assume "materialist" or non-materialist physicalism, it makes no difference for our purposes whether a CPU is made of silicon or gallium arsenide, etc. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then ultimately physical consciousness does all the causal work; but normally we're interested entirely in, say, the gameplay of a chess match, not in whether the pieces are made of micro-qualia or whether Deep Blue is a subject of experience. By contrast, if physicalism of any flavour is true, then I’m at a loss to see how such a clean digital abstraction layer can exist for our minds - given my own phenomenally bound consciousness…
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Assuming mathematical platonism, one might as well say each of us is encoded in, say, the decimal expansion of pi. Calling sentient beings and non-existent zombies by the same name risks conflating different ontological categories: whether sentient and non-sentient systems, or real and fictional entities. Of course, if the same label is employed, one can always just assume that one's nominal zombie counterpart can be systematically interpreted as doing anything you can do - and that one’s nominal zombie counterpart undergoes self-referential thoughts, seeks out painkillers for its phenomenally non-existent pain, explores psychedelic drugs to alter its non-existent consciousness, and so forth. But in my view these aren't real possibilities - especially if we aim to naturalise our folk use of modal language via Everettian QM rather than simply invoking one’s imagination.
I look forward to the day when consciousness realists and antirealists can use reversible thalamic bridges (cf. the conjoined Hogan sister twins) to “mind-meld”– although whether this will induce mutual enlightenment or psychosis I’m not sure.
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The trouble is Dennett isn't consistent. There are passages where he acknowledges the reality of first-person experience. There are lots of other passages (see e.g. the "Consciousness as an evolved user-illusion" chapter in From Bacteria to Bach and Back https://www.amazon.com/Bacteria-Bach-Back-Evolution-Minds/dp/0393242072) where Dennett denies subjective experience and suggests we are zombies (e.g. p.363). Part of the problem, as far as I can tell, is that Dennett is implicitly a perceptual realist who believes each of us directly acquainted with the physical world so we can start practising what he calls "heterophenomenology". But only a world-simulation model is scientifically viable - cue for a Dennettian attack on the "myth of the Cartesian theatre".
The Cartesian theatre
Recognising that your self-perceived body is only a cross-modally matched virtual body internal to your world-simulation doesn't (by itself) explain how the Cartesian theatre is possible. Indeed, if eliminative materialism or the existence of neurons as discrete, decohered classical is assumed, then the Cartesian theatre is impossible. To switch modalities, consider "phantom limbs". Really, you only ever experience "phantoms". But unlike in amputees, the phantom limbs internal to your world-simulation causally covary (when you are awake) with the behaviour of extra-cranial counterparts.
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"Consciousness and its Discontents"
Let’s assume physicalism: no “element of reality” is missing from the mathematical formalism of (tomorrow’s) physics: quantum field theory or its generalisation. Does reality consist of (1) fields of insentience (eliminativist materialism)? (2) fields that are sometimes sentient and sometimes insentient? (3) fields of sentience (non-materialist physicalism)?
Non-materialist physicalism (3) is sometimes with conflated with property-dualist panpsychism or Russell’s neutral monism. But non-materialist physicalism isn’t the claim that primordial experience is somehow attached to physical properties at a fundamental level (i.e. property-dualist panpsychism), or the claim that the “fire” in the equations is neither physical nor experiential but an unknown tertium quid (i.e. Russell’s neutral monism: https://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Physical-World-Perspectives-Russellian/dp/0199927359). Rather, non-materialist physicalism proposes that phenomenal experience is the intrinsic nature of the physical that the formalism of QFT describes. Your own conscious mind discloses the “fire” in the equations! We might perhaps call this position “idealistic” physicalism: the entire mathematical machinery of physics gets transposed to a subjectivist ontology. But the term “idealism” has too much philosophical baggage. Critics are likely to confuse such a label with anti-realism, or Bishop Berkeley, or the German idealists, or the claim that “consciousness collapses the wave function” (etc): I’ve never collapsed a wave function in my life.
This brings us to the phenomenal binding/combination problem. The binding problem sounds very bad news for non-materialist physicalism: the seeming impossibility of a solution drives David Chalmers to dualism. On the contrary, it’s very good news. Finally we can escape philosophising – and exchanging untestable intuitions on whether the intrinsic nature of the physical could or couldn’t be experiential – and instead extract novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions. And they really are empirical predictions, not just retrodictions: on the face of it, the structural mismatch between our phenomenally bound minds and the microstructure of the CNS is unbridgeable, just as David Chalmers recognises. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. Yet if non-materialist physicalism is true, then a perfect structural match must exist between our phenomenally bound minds and (ultimately) the formalism of QFT. Anyone who appreciates the raw power of decoherence (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1404.2635.pdf) in the “warm, wet and noisy” CNS can tell you that an interferometry experiment like https://www.physicalism.com/#6 could at most yield the nonclassical interference signature of functionless "noise". If I’m talking the proposal up (which alas makes one sound more like a crank rather than a disinterested truth-seeker), it’s not because I'm confident the answer is correct, but rather because I worry that the interferometry experiment needed to test it will otherwise never get done.
* * *
Artir, thanks. Billions of words have been written on the problem of consciousness. One can’t read them all. However, one can read in a weekend all the theories that make novel, empirically falsifiable predictions. Like many people, I don’t really understand how Orch-OR explains consciousness or phenomenal binding - or indeed the prowess of Penrose-class mathematicians. This doesn’t matter because Penrose/Hameroff and their critics can agree. The failure of interferometry to find the slightest collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics will falsify Orch-OR.
Likewise with non-materialist physicalism. I suspect most people will find e.g. the implication that consciousness is c. 13.8 billion years old, or that superfluid helium is a macroscopic quale (and so forth) desperately implausible if not nonsensical. It’s an intuition I share. However, when the non-materialist physicalist says that e.g. one’s experience of a phenomenally bound perceptual object consists in a coherent neuronal superposition (rather than synchronous firing) of distributed feature-processors, this isn’t just a bizarre “philosophical” opinion. It's an independently falsifiable empirical prediction - regardless of how insane it sounds. Molecular matter-wave interferometry cannot lie. I originally drew my calculations of credible decoherence timescales in the CNS from quantum mind critic Max Tegmark – who regards them as the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind, not a test.
A radical eliminativist about consciousness can respond that a Popperian plea for novel falsifiable predictions is unreasonable. No phenomenon exists to be explained! Here I’m a boring consciousness realist. Anything above-and-beyond the first-person contents of my own mind is a theoretical inference to the best explanation. Take away my “raw feels” and there’s nothing left – not even an introspective void...
[on the simulation argument]
"If absolute power corrupts absolutely, where does that leave God?") (George Deacon)
You instantiate a world-simulation but (probably) don't live within a universal simulation
("No, we probably don’t live in a computer simulation")
A small correction: I've asked Nick several times over the years what credence he personally assigns to our living in an ancestor-simulation. He's never reported a figure higher than 20%. That's rather different from believing that if posthuman superintelligence runs ancestor-simulations, then the principle of mediocrity dictates we're probably one of them – which is Nick's view. Of course, a lot of the bite of the Simulation Argument (not to be confused with the Simulation Hypothesis) comes from our intuition that running an ancestor-simulation sounds - naively - like a cool thing for a (super-)intelligent agent to do. Yet if we re-frame the question as how likely is post-human superintelligence to recreate, say, the horrors of Auschwitz, then most people will respond that the likelihood is vanishingly small.
Like you, I'm sceptical that full-blown ancestor simulations are physically feasible. But if they are physically feasible, then one possible counter-argument arises if we assume "no collapse" QM. Assuming Everett, then presumably(??) there must be quasi-classical branches where flawed superintelligence does nonetheless run ancestor-simulations. So statistically, aren't we overwhelmingly likely to occupy one of them after all?
For what it's worth, in my view still no. We've no real evidence for the popular view that phenomenally bound subjects of experience can "emerge" at different levels of computational abstraction. However, perhaps theory of consciousness and binding open a can of worms best explored elsewhere.
Sabine, apologies for the ambiguity. I just checked the Simulation Argument FAQ (last updated 2011). Nick explicitly states that he assigns a probability to the simulation hypothesis of something in the 20% region. This is quite consistent with believing that if posthuman superintelligence runs full-blown ancestor simulations, then we probably inhabit one of them. Maybe such simulations will prove technically infeasible; maybe humans will shortly go extinct; maybe any posthuman superintelligence will find ancestor-simulations too unethical or uninteresting to run. And so forth. Either way, Nick is much more cautious than some of his popularisers. Compare Elon Musk's recent claim that the probability we live in basement reality is “one in billions”.
Like the squalid world-simulations run by our minds, Darwinian life plays out in basement reality. For another view:
("Your yearly dose of is-the-universe-a-simulation")
Did the Devil fine-tune the parameters of Nature to maximise the cosmic abundance of suffering? Or is wavefunction monism true: the existence of pain-ridden Darwinian life is an anthropic selection effect? I'm inclined to believe the latter; but if I were theologically-minded, I'd argue the former.
If consciousness can "emerge", why not souls, spirits and demons? Strong emergence is the enemy of science...
("Can consciousness emerge in a machine simulation?")
Brian, yes, I believe that non-trivial artificial consciousness is possible, both biological and perhaps non-biological (e.g. futuristic quantum computers). But I don't think that classical digital computers (or countless other complex information processing systems like the e.g. financial markets) will ever have non-trivial consciousness because their fundamental constituents aren't phenomenally bound. Recall Turing's original machine. It would make no difference if 1s and 0s on the tape were replaced by discrete "micro-pixels" of experience. Regardless of how rapidly a program is executed, then if physicalism is true, i.e. no "strong" emergence, all that exists is a succession of discrete micro-pixels, not a unified subject of experience, suffering or otherwise, systematically amenable to functional description or otherwise. Why are biological minds different? This is much more controversial. Naturally, the principle of mediocrity suggests that I talk as much gibberish about consciousness as virtually everyone else. That said, if phenomenal binding as disclosed by our minds really is an unfakeable signature of basement reality, then any future digital "ancestor simulations" won't support suffering. Next century, biological mind-brains may be augmented by "narrow" superintelligence - and eventually something blissful but otherwise unimaginably alien. Risks of digital AI? I'm sceptical of interstellar travel by biological organisms, at least for the foreseeable future. The stars are too distant. But who knows what might be done with e.g. 3D bioprinting if our values are askew. I recall in his earlier work, Brian speculates on the possibility of spreading free-living animal suffering to newly created biospheres. Perhaps this scenario is more likely than the "cosmic rescue missions" that I mooted in HI. A Rare Earth hypothesis currently seems most credible. cheers David
Tranquilism: a biology of lifelong serenity is cool. Might passionate exhilaration be just as valuable? Either way, both scenarios are consistent IMO with phasing out experience below hedonic zero.
For naturally neurotic and anxiety-ridden people, perpetual tranquillity sounds like paradise. But countless bored young men today crave excitement. By its very nature, a state of tranquillity can't be boring. But the problem is that tranquillity sounds boring. (cf. the Christian concept of Heaven) For some happy people who don't get anxious or depressed, a boring life is the worst thing they can imagine. So depending on the emotional make-up of one's audience, perhaps it's worth stressing that post-Darwinian life based entirely on gradients of bliss can be exciting beyond any adventure we may conceive today?
If we're effectively to "sell" the idea of using biotech to phase out suffering, let alone promote a civilisation based on gradients of bliss, it's vital to let people feel their core values and preferences aren't being challenged. Complications aside, ratcheting up hedonic set-points globally could do this. Thus we can be neutral on whether to favour e.g. lives of excitement and adventure or meditative bliss. Alas one (big) complication is that many people are currently opposed to genetic-biological interventions.
"All sorrows are less with bread." (Miguel de Cervantes)
Nutritional medicine? All food is subtly psychoactive, but is poppyseed bread distinctively mood-elevating?
("Angela Rippon tested positive for opiates after eating poppy seed bread")
Trans fats should be banned worldwide.
("Trans fat bans lessen health risks, research suggests")
Psychoactive food? The links between food, mood, and cognition are subtle but experimentally detectable.
("Could your breakfast cloud your judgment")
The less you eat, the more vital is optimal nutrition.
("Being skinny linked to depression, study finds")
[on gene drives]
Hence the need for multiple drives targeted at multiple genes.
("Gene Drives Thwarted by Emergence of Resistant Organisms")
Reprogramming the biosphere (gene-drives.com) is far from trivial.
[on meta-ethics and ethics]
Is it ethically acceptable to urge a painful self-experiment by the value-nihilist?
What is David Pearce's position on meta-ethics
The idea of "hybrid" states with both a normative and descriptive aspect is challenging. But if it is acceptable to claim that one's own agony, say, discloses this hybrid property, I think one can get objective ethics off the ground.
Scarier than the morally superior are Nietzscheans who think they've transcended good and evil altogether.
("Do You Suffer From Illusions Of Moral Superiority")
Should sentience be precision engineered or kept as a genetic crapshoot?
("Ethics — the next frontier for artificial intelligence")
CRISPR: if Man were made in God's image, changing human nature might be unwise. As it is, genome editing is obligatory.
("Ethicists advise caution in applying CRISPR gene editing to humans")
CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing and synthetic gene drives can potentially wipe out suffering, disorders and disease throughout the living world.
("CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing reverses Huntington's in mouse model")
Suffering can crudely and simplistically be divided into "physical" suffering and "mental" suffering. Both physical and mental pain are modulated by hundreds of different genes, and thousands of different alleles. A combinatorial explosion threatens. Yet what we can do is massively load the genetic dice. Consider the horrors of physical pain. With CRISPR-based gene drives we could cheaply, rapidly and efficiently spread "low pain" alleles of SCN9A (cf. "No Pain and Extreme Pain From One Gene" - http://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2016/04/21/no-pain-and-extreme-pain-from-one-gene/) across entire species, dramatically reducing the burden of suffering in Nature. (cf. https://www.gene-drives.com/) If prospective parents are offered routinely PGD - not gene therapy, just the opportunity to choose their kids' pain thresholds - pain-tolerance in humans could be dramatically shifted too.
Literally no one would dispute there are pitfalls.
All that's at issue is risk-reward ratios.
We need a scientifically-informed public debate.
* * *
Creating happy mammoths is more important than creating woolly mammoths.
("Woolly mammoth will be back from extinction within two years, say Harvard scientists")
Does the world suffer from too much moralising or too little?
("Are Moral Judgments Good or Bad Things")
Brainless blobs can learn & teach, but a nervous system often improves cognitive performance.
("This Brainless Blob Learns — and Teaches, Too")
A transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience is vastly more inclusive than the well-being of all sapience.
("Intelligence: a history")
"The busy bee has no time for sorrow." (William Blake)
The perils of over-thinking...
("There's a cost to 'bee-ing' too smart, professor finds")
Would you be more troubled to be perceived as immoral or unintelligent?
("Real-life psychopaths actually have below-average intelligence")
Nazi race policy lowered European intelligence by devastating the ethnic group with an IQ a standard deviation above the norm.
Does the future belong to enhanced humans, transhumans, posthumans - or nonbiological artificial intelligence?
("Enhanced Humans: the Avatars of the Future")
Yet a link between autism & high IQ alleles isn't "surprising" if IQ tests measure only autistic intelligence.
("'Smart genes' account for 20% of intelligence: study)
Men tend to have faster reaction times than women, and record higher "IQ" scores too. But this fact is just what we would expect if "IQ" tests measure only the autistic component of general intelligence. High testosterone function also promotes competitive status-seeking behaviour ("success") in everything from academia to business. Such "success" is then used to validate..."IQ" tests.
The cognitive ability of peacocks varies, but not a lot.
("What Makes a Genius?")
Thanks Hunter. I'm sympathetic to Donald Hoffman's perspective. I just worry about claims like e.g.
To avoid confusion, IMO it's worth affirming right from the outset that one is a metaphysical realist. The mind-independent world is real and it's some 13.8 billion years old – unless, that is, one wants to argue a radical antirealism, a position that threatens to collapse into an uninteresting solipsism it’s pointless to advocate. On account of evolution, each of us runs an egocentric phenomenal world-simulation - a world-simulation that's not so much mind-dependent as constitutive of (much of) our minds. Thanks to natural selection, our waking world-simulations track gross fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent world. They refract these fitness-relevant patterns in all sorts of adaptive ways.
However - and this is my main reservation with Hoffman's work - in some respects our representations and real-time simulations are astonishingly accurate. The reason that e.g. a surgeon can do exceedingly intricate heart surgery on his patient - despite the surgeon’s mind consisting largely of the warped egocentric world-simulation running inside his skull - is precisely because of the macroscopic world-simulation he runs causally co-varying with relevant parts of his mind-independent local environment. If our world-simulations didn't capture these structural-relational features of the mind-independent world, then not just surgery but civilisation would be impossible.
Still not a zombie
What is consciousness “for”?
Why has consciousness evolved “if it’s as useless as it appears to be”, as Simon puts it (3)?
IMO, its fitness-enhancing role is so fundamental that we're mostly oblivious of its existence.
Imagine a notional human without any capacity for phenomenal binding, whether "local" binding or “global” binding – the victim of a deficit syndrome more severe than simultanagnosia, cerebral akinetopsia (“motion blindness”) and florid schizophrenia combined. The central nervous system of this profoundly handicapped human has no capacity to bind neuronal feature-processors into conscious perceptual objects, and no capacity to run a phenomenally bound world-simulation apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self – what Kant forbiddingly calls the “transcendental unity of apperception”. In short, this creature is a micro-experiential zombie, 86 billion odd neuronal pixels of membrane-bound Jamesian “mind-dust”. Perhaps individual neurons of this notional micro-experiential zombie can be identified via neuroscanning as distributed feature-processors – edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons, etc – just as our artificial connectionist systems with a sub-symbolic architecture can analogously be “trained up” to perform different computational tasks. Yet this poor handicapped creature can't combine its neuronal micro-experiences into dynamic perceptual objects populating a real-time unitary world-simulation. The CNS of this notional micro-experiential zombie doesn’t even undergo the kind of inky introspective void that you or I experience when closing our eyes. This notional micro-experiential zombie is not a so-called p-zombie – far from it, it's severely handicapped – but like a p-zombie, it’s not even “all dark inside”.
By contrast, the real-life phenomenal binding of Darwinian minds is ridiculously computational powerful - regardless of how you believe that our own conscious minds / world-simulations carry it off, and regardless of whether you think our minds are effectively classical or non-classical information processors. Most people are implicitly perceptual direct realists. They don’t normally conceive of the world-simulation run by their minds as a functional manifestation of consciousness. Instead they identify consciousness with e.g. self-awareness, or meta-cognition, or maybe wonder if consciousness has any real function at all - beyond facilitating interminable debates about consciousness. But a convergence of scientific evidence confirms that what we each pre-theoretically conceive as the “physical” – i.e. solid, medium-sized macroscopic objects “out there” - is as much a manifestation of consciousness as subtle introspective thought-episodes “in here”. This analysis of your phenomenally bound consciousness holds true whether you are dreaming or awake. When you are awake, however, the properties of your phenomenal world-simulation track gross fitness-relevant patterns in your mind-independent local surroundings.
The capacity of nervous systems to run real-time conscious world-simulations as a tool for navigating an unforgiving environment dates to the early Cambrian. In my view, Penrose et al. are barking up the wrong end of the evolutionary tree. Yet highlighting the fitness-enhancing properties of phenomenally bound consciousness doesn’t explain how such consciousness is physically possible for a pack of membrane-bound neurons. After all, telepathy would be fitness-enhancing for an organism too.
A non-materialist physicalist will say that, strictly speaking, consciousness per se isn’t evolutionarily “for” anything. Ultimately, all consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy: it’s the essence of the physical, the "stuff" of the world mathematically described by QFT. Plants, stock markets, digital computers and classically parallel connectionist systems are all examples of information-processing systems that are micro-experiential zombies. The textures of consciousness of their components are incidental, mere implementation details. By contrast, what makes biological minds special is how your consciousness is functionally bound.
Precisely how such functional binding is physically possible is really the topic for another comment / post. But before saying more, a word on Michael Huemer’s plausible-sounding, "1. For any system, every fact about the whole is a necessary consequence of the nature and relations of the parts.”
In classical physics, yes, this assertion is almost a truism. The claim is inconsistent with modern physics. Quantum theory turns Huemer’s assertion of mereological priority on its head. Perhaps see e.g. Jonathan Schaffer's "Monism: The Priority of the Whole" (2.2):
Non-materialist physicalists who are wavefunction monists (cf. https://www.amazon.com/Wave-Function-Metaphysics-Quantum-Mechanics/dp/019979054X) face the phenomenal unbinding problem. Why isn't the multiverse a single psychotic mega-mind, so to speak? In my view, the phenomenal unbinding problem is solved by decoherence: the rapid, environmentally-induced scrambling of phase angles of the components of an individual superposition. Applying Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism” (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082.pdf) to the CNS yields a selection mechanism of unimaginable power, turning what would otherwise be nonsensical psychotic “noise” into the classical-seeming world you’re subjectively undergoing right now. Selection pressure more powerful than four billion years of Darwinian evolution (as naively understood) takes place in your CNS every moment of your life. Insane-sounding, I know.
Mercifully, experiment (i.e. molecular matter-wave interferometry) rather than philosophising will settle the issue.
Hot or not? Would you prefer the company of a kind, sensitive, witty, affectionate zombie or a dysfunctional human?
("Can Your Robot Love You?")
Should "natural" drug addiction be celebrated by poets or treated as a toxic affective psychosis?
("Love Is Like Cocaine. From ecstasy to withdrawal, the lover resembles an addict.")
On balance I'd prefer wireheading or opioids.
("Tinder Select: The secret invite-only version for the rich, beautiful and famous")
All Darwinian relationships are dysfunctional.
("Why Narcissists Want to Make Their Partners Jealous")
As an incorrigible romantic, I wonder if it can be bottled or delivered in a pill.
("48-hour sexual 'afterglow' helps to bond partners over time")
Lookism is a frivolous name for a source of untold suffering. Genetic-biological solutions are needed, not stopgaps.
("Men's Looks Matter More Than Women Admit Study Shows")
Findom: how would you cope with someone turned on by giving you large sums of money?
("What is findom? A submissive man explains the fetish")
Wifebots: perhaps the male mind isn't over-sensitive to implementation details (consciousness, etc)...
("Engineer builds robot and marries it after failing to find a wife")
Mating, Dating and Procreating. Have you a high polygenic score? Or are you a walking genetic timebomb?
("Opinion: Dating and mating — decided by your genetic profile?")
We all have zombie avatars in each other's world-simulations. Darwinian relationships are all tragedies in the making.
("You may have been ghosted, but have you been zombied? A look at the new dating trend driving people up the wall")
Tinder for orangutans: all sentient beings should be helped to find love.
("'Tinder for orangutans': Dutch zoo to let female choose mate on a tablet. Orangutan Samboja will be shown males on a touchscreen in experiment aimed at learning more about mating choices")
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." (Pascal)
Likewise the gut.
("Microbes, a Love Story")
"Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else". (George Bernard Shaw) However...
("An Odd Disorder Convinced This Man That All Strangers Were His Crush in Disguise")
Tinder for orangutans: all sentient beings should be helped to find love.
("'Tinder for orangutans': Dutch zoo to let female choose mate on a tablet")
How many new emotions will we genetically create - and how many will we retire?
("Sciemtists pinpoint 27 states of emotion")
[on simultanagnosia and full-spectrum superintelligence]
What evolutionary fitness benefit does consciousness confer? What's it "for"? Sometimes one could be forgiven for thinking the only purpose of consciousness is to have interminable philosophical debates about consciousness. Each week brings news of a fresh triumphs by digital zombie software over world-class conscious humans in some new cognitive domain. Is consciousness just an incidental implementation detail of organic robots?
Perhaps ask instead: what is conscious binding “for”? As rare binding deficit syndromes illustrate, both local and global phenomenal binding plays a critical computational functional role in the effective functioning of biological robots. It’s staggeringly computationally powerful, yet no one knows how a pack of membrane-bound classical neurons pulls it off. A bumble bee is a far a more versatile and sophisticated robot than Alpha Dog. One reason we’re mostly oblivious to the computational power of phenomenal binding is that Nature has made us naïve realists about “perception”. Thus we talk simply of “seeing” our surroundings - rather than running a nearly real-time virtual reality simulation of our local environment sculpted and computed on the basis of sparse peripheral inputs.
So phenomenal binding is extremely useful, yes: but is binding literally indispensable to general intelligence? Consider simultanagnosia. Naturally we focus on the highly unusual trait of being able to see only one thing at once. But for someone with simultanagnosia, most forms of phenomenal binding (notably cross-modal phenomenal matching and a unitary phenomenal self) are still intact. The subject develops partial workarounds in order to cope. We don’t live on the unforgiving African savannah. In AI too, software engineers / robot designers can develop workarounds - just as chess programmers can develop software that can now beat the world's best players, despite the ability of a strong human chess player to “see” the whole board at a glance.
However - and this is the real point I want to make - what is the computational-functional workaround for not having a unitary phenomenal self: a workaround for not being a unitary phenomenal agent who acts within an almost real time, cross-modally matched egocentric world-simulation of the kind you’re running right now? When we talk about building "artificial general intelligence”, what will substitute for an absent AGI phenomenal self? Particularly if, anthropomorphically, we give the system in question a cutesy human name (“Watson” etc) it’s easy to underestimate the magnitude of the challenge. Humans with autism spectrum disorder or schizophrenia have a different, dysfunctional self, but at least partial global phenomenal binding is retained. Yet what are the upper cognitive bounds of totally “disintegrated” information processing systems with no local or global phenomenal binding at all - just incredible speed and serial depth of processing? IMO, full-spectrum superintelligence will be our hybrid biological descendants - genetically and AI-enhanced organic minds who incorporate non-conscious / unbound “narrow” digital AI modules/neurochips. Contrast a MIRI-type FOOM scenario (the “intelligence explosion”), or Kurzweilian “mind uploading”. In my view, the kinds of experience that superintelligent posthuman minds will bind are likely to be alien to any human conceptual scheme with one exception: future minds will be inconceivably blissful. For without hedonic tone, what’s the point?
Physicalism: a falsifiable conjecture?
What is the difference between materialism and physicalism?
Year 2045: "Hard Problem of Consciousness solved"?
Maybe, but will the mystery be cracked by an ultraintelligent digital zombie or sentient humans?
According to physicalism, the world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics: relativistic quantum field theory (QFT) or its speculative generalisation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-theory" target="_blank">M-theory). No “element of reality” is missing from the formalism. Quantum theory is complete.
Physicalism is often associated with Reductionism. Yet if wavefunction monism is true, then reductionism is false (cf. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/9347/1/Final_QM_for_volume.pdf).
Only one phenomenon in the natural world is – on the face of it – inconsistent with monistic physicalism: consciousness.
Twenty-first century natural science fails to explain:
(1) the existence of first-person experience: why aren’t we p-zombies?
(2) the causal capacity of conscious experience to talk functionally about its own existence, as we’re doing now.
(3) the classically impossible ways that experience is locally and globally bound: why aren’t we micro-experiential zombies?
(4) the rich diversity of our experience (the “palette problem”).
If the empirical evidence is inconsistent with one’s preferred theory, then should one acknowledge that one’s pet theory is false?
Rationally, perhaps yes.
Instead, most believers in monistic physicalism speak of the Hard Problem of consciousness.
However, traditional “materialist” physicalism contains a suppressed premise. The premise is metaphysical but plausible. The intrinsic nature of the physical, the “fire” in the equations of physics, is non-experiential. Quantum field theory describes fields of insentience.
Non-materialist physicalism drops the suppressed premise. The mathematical machinery of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience. Mysteries 1 to 4 are solved. Non-materialist physicalism yields novel, precise, testable predictions that can be (dis)confirmed with molecular matter-wave interferometry: What is Quantum Mind?
Like most scientifically-oriented people, I find non-materialist physicalism almost incredible – perhaps not as implausible as Chalmersian dualism or Dennettian eliminativism, but close. Yet if the history of science teaches us anything, it’s that experimentally ungrounded intuitions of absurdity – however deeply felt – can’t be trusted.
* * *
"Was there something that it was like to be the Big Bang?"
If I were a happy soul – or a strong mathematician! – then I might imagine the Big Bang as some kind of cosmic orgasm, though perhaps the really strong mathematician would lament the broken symmetries as akin to a bad acid trip instead. Either way, ultra-rapid decoherence timescales during the Big Bang / inflation make it hard to conceive this cosmic catastrophe as a unified mega-experience. If non-materialist / idealistic physicalism is true, then perhaps we need to ask what it's like to be the state of the universe prior to the Planck epoch.
Intuitively, we'll never know the answer. But I'm fairly confident that we'll learn whether non-materialist physicalism is true this century. Likewise the symmetry theory of valence that Andres and Mike explore.
* * *
[Ryan Reece asks] "What is the difference between materialist and non-materialist physicalism"? (cf. Is it possible that the hard problem of consciousness has a simple answer?)
Both materialist and non-materialist physicalists regard (tomorrow's) physics as causally closed and complete. No "element of reality" is missing from the formalism of our Theory of Everything - perhaps some relativistic generalisation of the universal Schrödinger equation. But recall outspoken materialist Stephen Hawking's unanswered - and seemingly unanswerable - question, "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" Hawking and other materialist physicalists take it for granted that the mysterious "fire" in the equations - the intrinsic nature of the physical - is non-experiential. This extremely plausible assumption leads to the Hard Problem of consciousness. Non-materialist physicalists drop the assumption. Humans aren't ontologically special. Subjective experience discloses the essence of the physical, the "fire" in the equations. What does make biological minds special is the way that experience is phenomenally bound in computationally powerful ways: https://www.physicalism.com/abstract.html
Three kind of idealism:
1) Solipsism: all that exists is my mind.
2) Pluralistic idealism: all that exists is a bunch of minds.
3) Physicalistic idealism (aka non-materialist physicalism): all that exists is a physical field of experience exhaustively described by the universal wavefunction. There is no Hard Problem of consciousness because experience is the essence of the physical.
Only (3) is consistent with science. But is it true? And critically, can we test it?
Yes, IMO. All we need to falsify the conjecture is find some aspect of experience - some "element of reality" - that is not captured by the formalism of physics but present in our minds. If we can do so, then physicalistic idealism is refuted.
Sometimes it’s supposed the palette problem (cf. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tht3.113/abstract) is the missing element of reality that falsifies physicalism – physicalism of any kind. The palette problem is one of two reasons that David Chalmers feels driven to naturalistic dualism. (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf) We undergo countless different textures of experience. By contrast, the ontology of fundamental physics is sparse and simple - albeit not yet quite as simple as we would wish (i.e. the Standard Model doesn’t include gravity and contains thirty or so adjustable parameters that need to be “put in by hand”). However, the particle-based ontology of elementary quantum mechanics is just a low-energy non-relativistic approximation of quantum field theory. In QFT, fields are fundamental, not particles. If physicalistic idealism is true, then the zillions (conventionally, an infinite number) of solutions to the equations of QFT yield the different values of experience. Why the "quantum" in QFT? Because without the superposition principle to underpin phenomenal binding, we'd be micro-experiential zombies.
And here (at last) comes the testability.
A lot of one's resistance to physicalistic idealism (and more generally to panpsychism in its various guises) comes from an extremely powerful intuition - an intuition I share - namely that the smallest possible unit of experience (“the psychon”) is much larger than the dimensions of the fundamental ontology of physics, whether fermionic and bosonic fields or – heaven help us – Planck-scale superstrings/branes. I guess the most popular candidate within the scientific community for the minimal "psychon" would be a neuron or a local neural network. But actually the violence to intuitions of non-materialist physicalism is worse. If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the fundamental “psychon” of experience must be ludicrously short-lived - not just ludicrously small.
And here is the crux. Assume that molecular matter-wave interferometry has advanced far enough so that we can probe the CNS (or in vitro neuronal networks - “micro-brains”) at femtosecond, attosecond and even zeptosecond timescales. What will experimentalists find? The naive answer is just 86 billion discrete, decohered, membrane-bound classical neurons – just the way we conceptualise the CNS in our temporally coarse-grained investigations today. Another answer is that we’ll find quantum weirdness alright, i.e. fleeting molecular and neuronal macro-superpositions are real, but their signature will just be “noise”. By analogy, imagine someone who believes that digital video game characters (or tomorrow’s putative “mind uploads”) are phenomenally bound subjects of experience. Suppose he naively probes the CPU of his futuristic desktop computer at attosecond timescales while a game (or a “mindfile”) is being executed in search of a non-classical interference signature of functionally relevant coherent superpositions of machine code. Good luck!
However, there's a third answer, which is tentatively mine. The answer is not idiosyncratic because I’m proposing new physics - I’m boringly conservative: you need to be very clever indeed to start monkeying around with the symmetries expressed in the bare quantum formalism. No, short-lived macro-superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors must exist in the physical world on pain of a failure of the linear unitary Schrödinger dynamics. What is idiosyncratic in a "Schrödinger’s neurons" proposal is that interferometry will reveal a perfect structural match between our phenomenal minds – in particular, phenomenally bound perceptual objects in our world-simulations - and the formalism of QFT.
Note that what we're looking for in the non-classical interference signature isn’t a perfect structural match in classical four-dimensional space-time, but rather a perfect structural match between coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-processors and a real physical ﬁeld in the conﬁguration space of the wave function. Of course, these sorts of timeframe are intuitively absurd. “Everyone knows” that conscious mind arises over scores of milliseconds. But these timeframes are neither more nor less absurd than micro-experience at femto-, atto-, zepto-metre (etc) distance-scales on the assumption that non-materialist physicalism or property-dualist panpsychism is true. If QM is formally complete, then what David Chalmers calls a “problem” for non-materialist physicalism/panpsychism is actually the solution to the phenomenal binding / combination problem. The binding / combination problem is an artefact of classical physics and crude classical neuroscience.
There's an obvious rejoinder here. No mechanism exists by which such fleeting individual neuronal superpositions could be harnessed, either by the individual organism or evolution. By contrast, connectionist neuroscience captures both the relevant dynamical timescale (cf. Max Tegmark) and molecular mechanism (i.e. neuronal action potentials and synapses) for computationally relevant state transitions, unlike quantum mind.
I’d beg to differ. The most sophisticated version of the decoherence program in post-Everett QM, Zurek’s “Quantum Darwinism" (cf. John Campbell’s “Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process”: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf), offers a powerful and unremitting selection mechanism: inconceivably intense. It’s a selection mechanism that generates quasi-classical Everett branches in the guise of a vast preponderance of well-behaved macroscopic “worlds” over maverick worlds, and also – when applied to the CNS – explains our capacity to run phenomenally bound classical world-simulations. I know of no other way to “save the phenomena” and derive the familiar lifeworld of one’s everyday experience from fundamental physics.
* * *
Alternatively, assume physicalism is true and experience is the "fire" in the equations of QFT.
("On why Idealism is superior to Physicalism and Micropsychism | Bernardo Kastrup")
* * *
As you might guess, I'm less optimistic than Andrés that the (hypothetical!) inflaton field is a manifestation of hedonium. Mercifully, I doubt it’s dolorium either, despite my bleak view of life. If physicalistic idealism is true, then its subjective texture is… goodness-knows-what. [As an aside, I've just read Roger Penrose, "Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe” - surprisingly good: Penrose always flags when he's saying something that departs from string-theoretic orthodoxy.]
If physicalistic idealism is true, and if local and global phenomenal binding is underpinned by neuronal superpositions, then neuroscience needs a Mendel to Zurek's Darwin, so to speak – though sadly quantum biology needs more mathematical sophistication than selectively cross-breeding pea plants. Quantum Darwinism applied to the CNS yields selection pressure for functional binding of stupendous, inconceivable power. By analogy, imagine four billion years of Darwinian natural selection (as classically conceived) compressed into a microsecond - unceasingly, unremittingly.
If this model of our minds is correct, then differential robustness to decoherence across the CNS needs to be described and quantified at the molecular level. Here alas I reach the limits of my technical competence and start philosophical handwaving. Above all, I'd love some experimental guidance on whether we're on the right track. What I call the (cf. "protocol" for experimental (dis-)confirmation is a philosopher’s conception of a protocol, not an experimentalist’s. Otherwise it's just a thought-experiment.
* * *
Mike, please forgive the Dave-stream-of-consciousness to follow.
Yes, "consciousness is a physics problem"!
Perhaps only researchers who appreciate the power - and mathematical straitjacket - of the Standard Model will allow this.
And yes, there's a Weak and Strong version of the conjecture.
As you know, I lean to the Strong version.
But Weak or Strong, when we probe the mind-brain at a fine enough temporal resolution with molecular matter-wave interferometry, I reckon that we'll discover a perfect structural match between the formalism of physics and the phenomenology of mind.
This (currently hypothetical) perfect structural match isn't in four-dimensional space-time but rather in the higher-dimensional wavefunction space of QM.
"The fundamental problem in qualia research? If I had to sum up what the biggest challenge in qualia research is, I'd say this: nobody knows what knowledge about qualia looks like."
Yes! A lot of people, especially folk with an AI background, assume that qualia will somehow emerge at a given level of computational abstraction. Deep Blue, Watson, video-game characters, a Universal Turing Machine implemented in Conway's Game of Life... then why not qualia too?!
Yet "strong" emergence, i.e. the unexplained eruption of first-person experience into the world, would be inconsistent with physicalism. Contrast such “strong” emergence with non-materialist physicalism. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then qualia are the essence of the physical, the "fire "in the quantum field-theoretic equations. There's no such beast as "virtual" fire; reality has only one ontological level.
The solutions to the equations of QFT encode the values and interrelationships of qualia.
Critically, these fields aren't classical fields of sentience: if the superposition principle of QM literally broke down in the CNS, then phenomenal binding would be physically impossible. Coherent superpositions are individual states, not classical aggregates.
A word on dual-aspect monism.
Dual-aspect monism obviously has affinities with - but is worth distinguishing from - Russell's neutral monism.
But dual-aspect monism is also worth distinguishing from - although it has obvious affinities with - the physicalist version of monistic idealism, i.e. non-materialist physicalism.
The core idea of dual-aspect monism (as I understand it) is that we perceive only the "external" aspect of physical objects. Third-person physical science captures the structural-relational properties of the world, not its intrinsic nature. The only glimpse we enjoy of this intrinsic nature - the essence of physical, the world-as-it-is-in-itself rather than conceived at one remove - is via our own self-intimating consciousness. And by consciousness, I don't mean just introspectively accessible thought-episodes and feelings, but also what would more commonly be called exteroception - "perceptual" experience. You may have noticed how I always speak of "the world-simulation that your mind is running" (etc) rather than of "perceiving one's local environment". The world-simulation model of perception isn't new. It's perhaps most ably defended today by Antii Revonsuo and Steve Lehar. Yet countless investigators still speak and think as though they were perceptual direct realists. If we take the world-simulation model seriously, then whether one is dreaming or awake, even the "external" aspect of physical objects to which dual-aspect monists allude isn't at all what it seems. This is because when one is ostensibly inspecting, say, an exposed brain on a surgical operating table, or a bunch of nerve cells under a light microscope, or "observing" rocks or mountains or a cityscape or experimental pointer-readings (etc), they are all phenomenally bound qualia internal to your transcendental skull. None of us literally has access even to an "external" aspect of mind-independent objects - although the everyday furniture of one's phenomenal world-simulation plays this perceptual role, allowing one to navigate ordinary waking life using an approximation of Newtonian mechanics.
Now for the really crazy stuff...
In my view, the selection mechanism of quantum Darwinism (i.e. the decoherence program in no-collapse QM pioneered by Zeh, Zurek et. al) explains BOTH the emergence of quasi-classicality in the mind-independent world AND the neurological means for biological minds to track this emergent quasi-classicality, namely the macroscopic world-simulation that your mind is running right now. One's entire, robustly classical-looking macroscopic world-simulation consists of nothing but sequences of "cat states". On this view, the phase-coherent frames of a quantum mind can simulate a phenomenally bound classical world; but a notional classical "mind" couldn't phenomenally simulate a classical world. "It" is just decohered mind-dust - even if "it" is a Cray supercomputer.
And don't worry, I'm not expecting you to buy into all this - I'm just clarifying where I'm coming from.
The way ahead?
Beyond the mantra of testability and the extraction of novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions, I think it's worth closely engaging with critics to find out what (if anything) the critic will allow counts as a novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable prediction that will (dis)confirm one's favoured theory. Admittedly such engagement can be hard to secure if the critic has already been rolling his eyes a dozen inferential leaps ago. Thus Penrose and Hameroff focus on tantalising evidence of anomalously long-lived coherence in neuronal microtubules. But friend and foe of Orch-OR should acknowledge that the "experimentum crucis" that settles the issue will be the detection - or failure to detect - via interferometry of a collapse-like deviation from the linear Schrödinger dynamics. Physicists will be stunned if unitarity is demonstrably violated (me too!) via the gravitationally-induced wavefunction collapse that Orch-Or proposes. But this "riskiness" to Orch-OR is good. I wish it were emulated.
And what of the ultimate version of Principia Qualia?
Later this century, physicists will probably have the mathematical formalism of the TOE – Principia Qualia cast in mathematical form. My best guess is that understanding the implications of the formalism will take millions or perhaps billions of years.
Today we have a modest vocabulary (congenitally "blind", "deaf", "anosmic", etc) for state-spaces of experience that a minority of humans can't access. But imagine a notional posthuman encyclopaedia with entries for countless billions of such privative terms - each for state-spaces of consciousness that all humans generically lack. These state-spaces of consciousness currently play no information-processing role. So the question of mankind's profound neurological-cognitive deficits doesn't arise. Perhaps a time-scale of millions or billions of years for the exploration and understanding of qualia sounds too pessimistic. Yet once we phase out the biology of experience below hedonic zero, investigation can be fun!
Not investigating nasty hedonically sub-zero stuff will involve self-imposed ignorance. But like failing to explore the many varieties of boredom, IMO this deliberate ignorance will be no great loss...
* * *
Question: do critics and proponents of the (a)symmetry theory of (dis)pleasure have any specific rival predictions about (what we might call) the molecular signature of pure bliss in our ultimate "hedonic hotspot” in the ventral pallidum? (cf. https://psywb.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2211-1522-1-3)
Or is the symmetry theory of pleasure inseparable from holistic theories of phenomenal binding where the idea of an individual “hedonistic” neuron doesn't make any sense?
Should our long-term goal be (1) bioconservative? (2) gradients of intelligent bliss? (3) a utilitronium shockwave?
("Quantifying Bliss") (2) is my preference. Not least, we can envisage a world where people are motivated to build a civilisation of intelligent bliss, whereas the prospect of a utilitronium shockwave appeals only to a handful of utilitarian purists.
"The purpose of life is  to feel happy and  to make others happy".
On the face of it, these are two entirely separate propositions.
(1) Is the pleasure principle / psychological hedonism true? There are a thousand-and-one complications to consider. But if we stick to the broad claim, yes, sentient beings from earthworms to humans are constitutionally built to seek pleasure and shun pain. It's essentially the only reason why social primates like us are on Facebook now. The opioid-dopamine system is strongly evolutionarily conserved. For sure, behaviourists are more comfortable with the jargon of "positive and negative reinforcement" etc. This "scientific" language is just a fancy way of acknowledging the sovereignty of the pleasure pain axis.
Yet what has (1), i.e. psychological hedonism, got to do with (2), i.e. "the purpose of life... is to make others happy"? Treated empirically, the claim is clearly false. Thus e.g. mirror-touch synaesthesia is rare. Truly impartial rule-flowing benevolence is non-existent. Evolution has hardwired us with the immensely fitness-enhancing egocentric illusion.
Now as it happens, IMO the tools of decision-theoretic rationality can be used to show why an ideal God-like epistemic agent should seek to maximise the well-being of all sentience. The reason that it's rational to weigh the well-being of other minds of comparable sentience elsewhere in space-time on a par with one's own well-being now is ultimately the very same reason that it's rational for a self-avowed psychopath not to steal money from his own savings account: "stealing" the cash doesn't make him an über-rational super psychopath, just stupid.
Note how non-individualist, universal decision-theoretic rationality is normative but doesn't invoke the language of morals.
However, this conception of personal (non-)identity and its implications for rational agency rests on a bunch of controversial metaphysical assumptions (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_individualism) that take us a long way from mundane psychological hedonism of (1).
I'm sure Andres will wrap up the loose ends in his talk.
Andres, thanks! Amazing stuff. For a long time I've been hoping the neuroscience will identify the molecular signature of pure bliss. Absent a solution to the binding problem, such a discovery can only be a start. But I wonder what your theory predicts we should expect to find in those magical neurons in our critical "hedonic hotspot" for pleasures in the ventral pallidum? I wonder if it might be worth your liaising with Kent Berridge?
(Alas one his postgrads once told me long ago he regarded HI as "science fiction"; I wonder if he may have mellowed)
("Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being")
When can utilitarian philosophers be converted into utilitronium?
("Did Jeremy Bentham have Asperger's? Severed head of eccentric philosopher will go on display while his DNA is tested for autism")
Tim, I incline more to "empty" individualism than open individualism. Yet either way, the scientific world-picture suggests no here-and-nows are special or ontologically privileged. To the extent one believes that one’s here-and-now is special - and yes, I do seem to be the centre of the universe, which follows me around - this delusion is a genetically adaptive lie. What is the link between the egocentric illusion, decision-theoretic rationality, and ethics? On the assumption of metaphysical individualism, as presupposed by e.g. the LessWrong Decision-Theory FAQ (cf. http://lesswrong.com/lw/gu1/decision_theory_faq/), yes, it's rational for me to save for a pension, whereas it's "merely" ethical to donate surplus cash to help anonymous Third World strangers / GiveWell-approved charities, or whatever. But if metaphysical individualism is false, i.e. if my DP namesake in 2038 is no more "really" me than an Ethiopian peasant today - then the rationality-ethics dichotomy can't be sustained.
As an intellectual exercise, perhaps imagine the Decision-Theoretic FAQ as written by the Borg...
* * *
Bliss: as vital to sentient life as oxygen - and soon more abundant. But "soon" only in the evolutionary sense. Alas a blissful post-CRISPR biosphere can still seem impossibly remote to suffering beings alive today.
Or is biohappiness best? To be cost-effective, pay for perpetual activation your twin "hedonic hotspots". Or better, donate to help create a CRISPR civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss.
("How to Buy Happiness. Social scientists offer some answers.")
Happiness: you can't "actively cultivate well-being" without the right genetic-biological fertiliser.
("Get Happy: Four Well-Being Workouts")
We need a world happiness olympics, with all forms of cheating encouraged.
("Welcome to the happiest country on Earth")
Happiness: perhaps compare an international league table that excludes non-Aryans. Anthropocentric bias is rife in science.
("Who's happy, who's not: Norway tops list, US falls")
The Happy Song.
(well, it works for me...)
Means-ends rationality suggests giving our brains what they're after rather than conserving evolution's Rube Goldberg machines. But natural selection means the world is full of people who imagine they've transcended the pleasure principle.
("Sex, drugs and music: Brain switch stops people feeling emotional about songs when played")
International happiness studies lack methodological rigour. Everywhere the hedonic treadmill still grinds.
("Some of the world’s most unhappy countries are also the most optimistic")
Happiness: let's use biotechnology to create a Moore's Law of subjective well-being.
("Can Dubai become the world's happiest city")
The world happiness olympics: roll on rampant cheating, mood-enhancing drugs, ubiquitous gene doping - and an outright ban on speciesism.
("This Country, Once Again, Is the Happiest Nation in the World") What would you do?
Life in Heaven
I take a pinch of amineptine before my late-afternoon walk. I'd fail a dope test but who cares.
("How physical exercise prevents dementia")
[on Existential Risk]
Blurb for Phil Torres' "Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks, Pitchstone Publishing." (2017)
If life on Earth didn't exist, would a benevolent superintelligence create it? How might the beauty and joy brought into existence be impartially weighed against the creation of such immense cruelty and inexpressible suffering? Whatever our answer to this hypothetical, few respondents would claim that giving an answer of "No" is self-evidently monstrous or absurd. By contrast, any hypothetical proposal to wipe out existing life strikes most people as self-evidently monstrous and absurd. A big part of such an incongruent reaction undoubtedly lies in status quo bias. But beyond mere status quo bias, a better reason exists to be appalled at apocalyptic solutions to the problem of suffering. The world has no clean OFF switch. An attitude of mind that places no positive value on human and nonhuman life, and disregards the expressed wishes of autonomous individuals, typically leads to more suffering, not less. Thus there is nothing inconsistent with being a negative utilitarian or a Benatarian or a Buddhist and also believing that the sanctity of human and nonhuman life should be enshrined in law. This is my view.
Yet what if the world really did have an OFF button? Or rather, what if developments in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering or WMD turn the extinction of sentient life into a credible prospect, not just a thought-experiment? Phil Torres’ “Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks” offers an authoritative guide to the emerging scientific discipline of Existential Risk in all its guises.
As a Misguided Ethicist who would, unhesitatingly, press a clean hypothetical OFF button, I confess I was surprised to be invited to contribute a blurb to this volume. Knowing my dark views on life, a handful of young, idealistic, and extremely smart people have inquired over the years about the feasibility of apocalyptic solutions to the problem of suffering. My answer has always been the same. Apocalyptic solutions are an ethically hazardous distraction. Don’t allow a supremely compassionate Buddhist / negative utilitarian doctrine, i.e. our overriding ethical obligation to mitigate and prevent suffering, get mixed up with plotting Armageddon. The only rational way to get rid of suffering will use the non-violent democratic politics of persuasion - promoting the slow, fitful process of rewriting the genome to create a civilisation based on gradients of intelligent bliss. A few centuries from now, our superhappy and superintelligent descendants may view negative utilitarianism as a pathology of mood and thought – just like most other Darwinian value systems.
However – and this is the real worry - we should also try to understand why a Seriously Misguided Ethicist might reach a radically different conclusion – and far more dangerously, influence impressionable minds more prone to action than armchair philosophising. Unlike the Misguided Ethicist, the Seriously Misguided Ethicist claims that utopian talk of abolishing suffering by creating a blissful post-CRISPR biosphere (etc) is fanciful. Why not just bring the whole Darwinian horror-show to an end? Buddhists speak of nirvana (“snuffing out”). More effective tools will soon exist to extinguish pain-ridden life on Earth than the Noble Eightfold Path, for example igniting a nirvana shockwave. Granted, intelligent life may conceivably be poised to radiate across the Galaxy spreading love and happiness. But maybe C.S. Lewis is right: “Let’s pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.” Why take the risk?
I don’t have a knock-down reply to the Seriously Misguided Ethicist, other than to say that the problem of suffering and the study of existential / global catastrophic risks are not orthogonal, as is often supposed, but intimately related. Other things being equal, the more we value life, the more motivated we are to preserve it. Anyone seriously interested in global catastrophic and existential risk should explore tackling one of its primary underlying causes: the biology of suffering. For sure, the world has few card-carrying negative utilitarians. Yet negative utilitarianism just systematizes the insight of millions of thoughtful folk who would “walk away from Omelas” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas & text) – people who would forgo the promise of fabulous delights if the price of pleasure were the misery of a single child. What “walking away” entails is controversial – and perhaps profoundly disturbing.
Phil Torres’ book covers the risks posed by Misguided Ethicists and other forms of existential risk in a scholarly, rigorous fashion. Highly recommended.
* * *
[Adam Karlovsky quotes me] "Singularitarians worry about sentience-unfriendly artificial intelligence. But human society is based on sentience-unfriendly biological intelligence. We hurt, harm and kill billions of sentient beings each year in the death factories."
Thanks Adam. There's a terrible irony here. I.J. Good's original proposal, i.e. that a combination of Moore’s law and software-based, recursively self-improving AI might lead to a runaway Intelligence Explosion, has been argued most vigorously over the years by Eliezer Yudkowsky and SIAI / MIRI. Nick Bostrom then wrote the book Eliezer should have written ("Superintelligence"). The spectre of sentience-unfriendly superintelligence was picked up by a charismatic billionaire (Elon Musk) and an academic superstar (Stephen Hawking). Media interest then ensured a sensationalised version entered mainstream public awareness. However, Eliezer himself believes that nonhuman animals, and human babies / prelinguistic toddlers prior to acquiring meta-cognitive capacities, aren't conscious. Ordinary meat-eaters (and yesterday’s cannibals?) typically downplay the minds of their victims. Eliezer believes they aren’t sentient at all.
(cf. "The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else." EY)
Eric, in one's own life, peak experiences or orgasmic bliss - and (hopefully) rare uncontrollable panic or agony - are more intensely conscious than the experience of exercising complex meta-cognitive capacities. They matter more. IMO, we should be sceptical of the claim that reflective states are intrinsically (rather than perhaps instrumentally) more valuable. But what I wanted to highlight was how EY believes that human babies and nonhuman animals aren't subjects of experience at all: they can't suffer. False theories of (un)consciousness can be ethically catastrophic. Compare the Cartesian vivisectionists: "distress vocalisations" of the agonised dogs they vivisected were supposedly just noises emitted by feelingless automata.
Of course, the risk of error cuts both ways. Should disbelievers in digital sentience alter our behaviour on the possibility we could be catastrophically mistaken? As you know, my own conception of the nonclassical basis of phenomenal binding is speculative - at best.
[on wireheading and DBS]
Later this century, psychiatric wonderdrugs and CRISPR genome-editing promise mental health for everyone. Until then, should victims of untreatable depression be allowed unlimited access to opioids, DBS or wireheading?
("DARPA’s Brain Chip Implants Could Be the Next Big Mental Health Breakthrough—Or a Total Disaster")
[on predators and predation]
Should we aim for global veganism? Do you identify more closely with predators or their victims?
What would you do if someone attempted to rescue a prey from its predator?
Of course ad hoc interventions scarcely make a dent in the problem.
Transhumanism: phasing out the biology of (involuntary) suffering in all sentient life deserves to be mainstream.
Abolition is Imperative in Kurzweil’s Sixth Epoch Scenario
From the Buddhist equation of suffering with desire to the stoicism of classical antiquity to Schopenhauer’s advocacy of ascetic renunciation, yes, a long tradition views well-being as essentially an absence of pain. Yet as a matter of empirical fact, we find that the happiest people tend to have the most desires. Conversely, depressives are prone to feel empty and unmotivated. At the neurobiological level, this distinction may be crudely expressed as the difference between dopaminergic “wanting” and mu-opioidergic “liking”: these two aspects of experience are, as neuroscientists say, “doubly dissociable”. What does this separability mean for the future of sentience? Just that phasing out the biology of suffering is consistent with two very different scenarios: at the one extreme, a “hyperdopaminergic” civilization typified by superhuman motivation, at the other extreme, a civilisation based on serene bliss – presumably with countless variations in-between. Which extreme, if either, is more likely? I don’t know. “Life based on gradients of intelligent bliss” is a non-committal formula that can be fleshed out in diverse ways.
"NBIC" = nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science.
("Super-intelligence and eternal life: transhumanism’s faithful follow it blindly into a future for the elite") Thank you for a thoughtful essay. May I offer a few thoughts. The Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009) expresses our commitment to the well-being of all sentience – not just a privileged elite. Perhaps recall the World Health Organisation's definition of health "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Can good health for all be delivered without embracing NBIC technologies? The ravages of aging, for example, strike rich and poor alike. Likewise, untold millions of rich and poor people suffer chronic pain and / or depression. Or consider the horrors of factory-farming. Will factory-farms and slaughterhouses be closed via moral argument alone, or only in conjunction with the development of mass produced in vitro meat? As it stands, "Technical solutions to ethical problems" is a simplistic slogan. Yet recall how the price of any information-based technology trends inexorably to zero. The challenge is to use NBIC technologies wisely for the benefit of all sentient beings.
* * *
Is transhumanism compatible with Buddhism
Is transhumanism compatible with Islam?
Is transhumanism compatible with ballroom dancing? It's good to make alliances..
Let's hope so....
("Why upgrading your brain could make you less human")
No doubt. But the educative role of information-sensitive dips in bliss should be preferred...
("Making people feel bad can be a strategy for helping them")
Transhumanism: "effectively omniscient"? You gotta be kidding...
("Transhumanism: The final chapter in humanity’s perpetual quest to be kitted out in comforting accessories")
"Enhancement" or remediation?
By posthuman standards, we're all dysfunctional savages...
("Biological Enhancement: Changing What it Means to Be Human")
Transhumanism promises a future of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. But no God.
("God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism")
When will the reckless genetic experimentation of sexual reproduction be replaced by transhuman designer babies?
("Artificial human life could soon be grown in lab after embryo breakthrough")
"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." (Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse)
Social primate status-games are zero-sum. How can we transcend the biology of the African savannah?
("Air rage: why does flying make us so angry? Science says it's about class. Rise in acts of plane-related violence shed light on something bigger: modern air travel is a perfect example of a situation in which human status is highly visible")
* * *
Tim, first, survivalism. Does the existence of suffering in the world tend to increase or decrease existential risk? If this group advocated e.g. mass wireheading, or engineering world-wide congenital analgesia, or even everyone getting off their heads on hedonistic cocktails of drugs, then perhaps you should be concerned. But crudely, the more one loves life, the keener one is to preserve it. Compare the hyperthymic temperament of members of institutes like FHI devoted to the study and mitigation of existential risk. If the main focus of this group were existential risk, then I'd still urge phasing out the biology of suffering - not so much because of hypothetical button-pressing negative utilitarians, but because in an era of WMD some depressive or other troubled soul might decide to take the rest of the world down with them. Creating a world animated by gradients of intelligent bliss is pro-life and pro-survival.
Second, consciousness. If phenomenal binding is a classical phenomenon, as you believe, then digital sentience and “mind-uploading” should be feasible - with profound ethical implications. In order to phase out suffering, we’ll need to get our theory of mind right. You'll find a predictable diversity of opinions here. Yes, I incline to the view that classical digital computers will always be zombies. Maybe I’m wrong: interferometry experiments on the lines outlined will confound my favoured theory. But this is good! We should urge any researcher with a conjecture - classical or quantum - of consciousness or phenomenal binding to spell out as clearly and precisely as possible its testable consequences - if any – versus its competitors.
[On how we should act]
Andrés Gómez Emilsson on G+ quotes:
"If meta-ethical realism is correct, i.e. there is an objectively correct ethic to be discovered, then presumably its policy implications may be as much at odds with folk morality as is quantum theory at odds with folk physics." (David Pearce)
Thanks Andrés. In one sense, I'm still in thrall to commonsense. My agony and despair is self-intimatingly bad. My sublime bliss is self-intimatingly good. The insight that – for reasons we don’t understand – the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s intrinsic axis of (dis)value is philosophically ancient. So we may ask how a benevolent full-spectrum superintelligence should act, i.e. a God-like agent who can impartially access and appraise all first-person and third-person perspectives and act accordingly. Presumably, God-like superintelligence won’t be prey to the egocentric delusion that hardwires Darwinian minds evolved under pressure of natural selection to feel uniquely special: the egocentric illusion.
The upshot of these reasonable-sounding constraints may be utterly alien and perhaps repugnant to most of us. For instance, I’d struggle to defend - except instrumentally - creating a world based on gradients of intelligent bliss rather than laying the foundations for a utilitronium shockwave: cosmic wireheading, as it were.
However, in order to avoid getting trapped in a philosophical quagmire, sometimes it’s easier to set aside meta-ethical realism and focus on rational agency. As you know, I still hope someone will write an amoral Decision-Theoretic FAQ for a full-spectrum superintelligence: the counterpart of the amoral Less Wrong Decision-Theoretic FAQ minus its irrational individualist metaphysics:
Presumably, full-spectrum superintelligence won't be bewitched by a false metaphysics of personal identity.
Qualia computing, so to speak.
Currently, a daunting obstacle to writing a purportedly God’s-eye-view ethical and/or decision-theoretic FAQ is that it’s impossible to act rationally or morally – except by accident - without grasping the nature of reality, at least in crude outline. No sign of the fog lifting any time soon. Cosmology is in flux. Post-empiricist science is in vogue. On a personal note, my motivation to write and act has been sapped by “multiverse mania”. Despite finding Everett’s original PhD thesis compelling, I used to console myself with the thought that Everettian QM might be wrong. Perhaps gravitationally-induced wavefunction collapse à la Penrose undercuts the universal applicability of the superposition principle. Or perhaps (somehow) the "bare formalism" of the unitary dynamics has a limitation no one has fathomed. Everett aside, I hope Peter Woit is right. (cf. http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=9027) Succumbing to what Nick Bostrom christened “infinitarian paralysis” is a real risk - whether or not one believes in the literal existence of physically realised infinities. Yet there is a real tension between (in my case) defending some sort of zero ontology (cf. https://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-universe-exist-Why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing) and a desire to “do the right thing” that I’m unable to reconcile. Sometimes my mind gives way under the strain.
* * *
Tim, we agree. The experimental detection of quantum coherence in microtubules, or alternatively the non-classical interference signature of fleeting neuronal superpositions, will not prove the mind-brain is a quantum computer. And we’re not robins: http://scitechstory.com/2011/01/24/the-robin-flies-with-quantum-coherence/] But Orch-OR - and likewise the no-collapse explanation of phenomenal binding I explore - are experimentally falsifiable conjectures: they make novel, precise, empirically testable predictions. These predictions are - to anyone who understands the nature of decoherence - extremely implausible. But faced with a problem we can't solve, we need implausible predictions - conjectures that are "risky” in Popper’s sense. Thus what will vindicate or falsify Orch-OR isn’t the demonstration of quantum coherence in microtubules, tantalising as it may be; rather, it will be any experimentally detected deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics on the scale which Penrose reckons OR occurs. Likewise, what will vindicate or falsify the explanation of phenomenal binding I favour won’t be detection of the non-classical interference signature of neuronal superpositions per se, but rather the presence or absence of a perfect structural match, i.e. synchrony is really superposition – insane as it sounds. (https://www.physicalism.com/#6)
At Tucson, I thought David Chalmers had the same you-can’t-be-serious response as you when he realised what I was proposing. But I see from his Reddit AMA that he thinks the conjecture is worth experimentally falsifying. Cool. I'm just curious.
[on mental health]
A predisposition to lifelong mental health is genetically abnormal. Time for transhuman civilisation of "unnatural" well-being?
("Mental Illness Is Far More Common Than We Knew")
Yet we still go on churning out cruel genetic experiments ("babies"):
("If you live your life without mental health issues, science says you’re the weird one")
Alas suing for another windfall may not solve the problem. Roll on a WHO initiative to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill.
("Britain's youngest EuroMillions winner says life ruined")
The last person born in the 20th century may not die for millennia or more.
("World's oldest person Emma Morano dies at 117")
117 not out. Technically born in the nineteenth century too: year 1900. But when can biotech let title-holders enjoy their crown indefinitely?
("Jamaica: Meet the New Oldest Person in the World")
[on consciousness inessentialism]
Luke Muehlhauser from Open Philanthropy:
2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood")
A word on Luke's "Consciousness inessentialism”. Sometimes the only thing that consciousness seems indispensable for is investigating consciousness itself. (cf. https://www.transformpress.com/all-publications) If one considers, for example, the logico-linguistic and cognitive processes via which this sentence is written and read, then it's tempting to agree with Luke that "the vast majority of human cognitive processing is unconscious". Further, the success of programs like AlphaGo to Deep Blue to Watson might suggest that consciousness is just an implementation detail of biological minds - ethically important, yes, but functionally dispensable.
However....this conception of consciousness is (I believe!) fundamentally mistaken. Consciousness inessentialism stems from a direct realism about perception. Perceptual direct realism is sometimes explicit, more often just implicit. Compare instead the world-simulation model of perceptual experience. (cf. Antti Revonsuo, “Inner Presence”: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/inner-presence; Steve Lehar, “The World in Your Head”: http://cns-alumni.bu.edu/~slehar/Lehar.html, etc) Whether you are dreaming or awake, the entire macroscopic world-simulation that your mind is running - from spectacular sunsets to football matches to rock concerts, you name it – consists of vividly and intensely conscious first-person experience. The ability to run egocentric, cross-modally matched phenomenal world-simulations in almost real time is the greatest computational achievement of organic minds over the past 540 million years. And no one knows how we carry it off! Whether we consider the "local" phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into individual perceptual objects, or "global" phenomenal binding (aka the unity of perception and the unity of the self), phenomenal binding is both hugely fitness-enhancing (cf. telepathy) and - on the face of it - physically impossible for a mere pack of neurons on pain of spooky “strong” emergence. Even if individual membrane-bound neurons are “pixels” of micro-experience, or indeed even if property-dualist panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, then you should be a micro-experiential zombie. David Chalmers isn’t the first investigator to recognise this; but Chalmers is the most clear-headed about the implications for monistic physicalism if the binding problem can’t be solved.
I won't here explore possible solutions to the mystery (cf. https://www.physicalism.com/abstract.html), or the workarounds attempted by roboticists working outside the tradition of symbolic AI. Rather, the point I wanted to make is that unless you defend a (IMO scientifically untenable) perceptual direct realism, we shouldn't think of consciousness primarily in terms of the subtle, elusive phenomenology of introspective thought, or the kinds of experiences one has solving equations or doing predicate calculus.
If one aspires to do anything beyond sleep, consciousness is computationally vital.
What are the ethical implications of all this?
The binding / combination problem is often posed in terms of perception. Yet it's no less relevant if we consider evolutionarily ancient adaptations like phenomenal pain and fear. Imagine if (for the purposes of an experiment) 320 skull-bound American minds each consent to undergo an ethically and subjectively trivial pinprick. Even if they reciprocally signal this fact simultaneously to each other over the Net, I doubt even Eric Schwitzgebel would claim that the upshot is pan-continental agony (cf. “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”: http://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/USAconscious.htm). Contrast the nervous system of animals. OK, if most animals were like sponges (cf. http://www.livescience.com/1573-origins-human-nervous-system-sponges.html), then non-human animals would barely matter. Maybe the individual cells of a sponge experience fleeting micro-experiences (probably yes, IMO). There is no phenomenally bound subject of experience we need worry about. Compare the vertebrate CNS or the nerve ganglia of invertebrates and the ghastly first-person phenomenology of suffering. Of course, the sceptic can always demand proof that invertebrate nerve ganglia support unitary subjects of experience. How do we know that a writhing worm, seemingly in pain, is undergoing anything more than discrete, ethically trivial micro-pinpricks? Strictly, we don’t. However, all the behavioural, genetic, neurobiological and pharmacological evidence converges. Worms have essentially the same dopamine and opioid neurotransmitter systems and responses to noxious stimuli as humans do. Yes, we'd do well to prioritise the interests of higher vertebrates over creatures on the margins of sentience, not least by shutting horrific factory-farms and slaughterhouses. But the entire biosphere will shortly be programmable. The humblest free-living creatures populating the most inaccessible and remote environments (Amazonia, marine ecosystems etc) will actually be easiest actively to help - and help too in defiance of the "laws” of Mendelian inheritance as traditionally understood (cf. https://www.gene-drives.com).
Needless to say the world isn’t ready for planetary engineering on this scale. No one advocates it now. Yet if we're considering the long-term future of sentience, it’s worth stressing that the optimal level of suffering across the tree of life will soon be approximately fixable – and dependent on the choices of intelligent moral agents like us.
(Sorry, I should probably add, consciousness inessentialism isn't peculiar to perceptual direct realists. Compare panpsychist / non-materialist physicalist Galen Strawson, ”Real Direct Realism”: https://www.academia.edu/3242047/Real_Direct_Realism_2015)
Anti-natalism is admirable. But the only long-term solution to the problem of suffering is genetic reprogramming.
Reddit Anti-natalism and HI and procreation
The Argument From Selection Pressure
Many thanks everyone for some very thoughtful comments. First, could I just say that I don't personally want to bring any more suffering into the world. I wholeheartedly support antinatalists who feel likewise. So why not endorse David Benatar’s plea for human extinction via voluntary childlessness? After all, simply not reproducing is much easier than any grandiose pan-species genetic engineering project to get rid of suffering.
As I worry in my review of Benatar, we need to consider the nature of selection pressure. Recall how desperately hard some people try to have children, and the terrible suffering that some people experience from involuntary childlessness. A predisposition to "go forth and multiply" is genetically fitness-enhancing. Sociologically speaking, too, it's hard to conceive of any way for antinatalist ethicists to persuade everyone not to have children. By contrast, perhaps we can foresee a time when prospective parents routinely choose to make sure their kids have e.g. a benign "low pain” version of the SCN9A gene via preimplantation genetic screening:
If a global consensus ever exists, then intelligent moral agents could even rapidly spread "low pain" genes across the whole tree of life in defiance of the “laws” of Mendelian inheritance: https://www.gene-drives.com.
Similar strategies could in future be used for other nasty traits that were adaptive in the ancestral environment of adaptation.
The biggest obstacles to this kind of engineering project are bioconservative ideology and - above all - status quo bias. Obviously, a lot could go wrong technically too.
Any antinatalist or advocate of suffering-focused ethics who believes that such a prospect is fanciful may have a point. But for better or worse, the entire biosphere is about to become programmable. Whether mankind will do the job wisely and mitigate – or even abolish - the biology of suffering is another question. David Benatar's solution to suffering won't work. Selection pressure means Darwinian life cannot be ended by anti-natalism. But if humanity can overcome status quo bias, CRISPR genome-editing can create a living world based entirely on gradients of bliss. e.g. Life in the Year 3000
The case for not being born
What are the arguments against anti-natalism?
Sleep may be as much of a cognitive enhancer as psychostimulants masquerading as smart drugs.
("The Brain’s Connections Shrink During Sleep")
Late-night carbs won't especially cause you to put on weight and may help you get a good night's sleep.
("Scientists Dispel Late-Night Eating/Weight Gain Myth")
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” (Homer) I combine late-night bananas and a melatonin supplement...
Conceptions of personal identity range from femtoseconds to over 122 years. But probably most progress in radical antiaging research will come from folk with a robust metaphysical egos...
What happens to consciousness when we're asleep?
Another answer is from Rosa Lichtenstein, a “Wittgensteinian Trotskyist”, who links to P. M. S. Hacker. ("But in philosophy, there are no mysteries – only mystifications and mystery-mongering." http://info.sjc.ox.ac.uk/scr/hacker/docs/ConsciousnessAChallenge.pdf) Compare Wittgenstein: "Philosophy leaves everything as it is". Alas philosophy in North Oxford still hasn't recovered from the later Wittgenstein. Quite what Leon Trotsky would have made of ordinary language philosophy, I'm not sure.
"All men while awake are in a common world: but each when asleep is in a world of his own" (Plutarch) A useful myth.
("Study points to a universal immune mechanism as a regulator of sleep")
Chronotypes" may be complicated by your drug regimen:
("It's Okay That You Don't Like Mornings--Your Memory Probably Doesn't Either. How sleep, circadian rhythms and chronotype affect your ability to remember")
Memory-editing tools needed.
(Rules of memory 'beautifully' rewritten")
If you could choose, how much or how little would you sleep?
("Deep sleep may act as fountain of youth in old age. Restorative, sedative-free slumber can ward off mental and physical ailments, suggests research")
Modafinil or melatonin? Pulling too many all-nighters is risky.
("The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep loss in mice sends the brain’s immune cells into overdrive. This might be helpful in the short term, but could increase the risk of dementia in the long run")
Today's sleeping and waking consciousness deserve to pass into evolutionary history. But what comes next?
("Researchers Tap a Sleep Switch in the Brain")
Why most packs of skull-bound neurons aren't schizophrenic is not well understood.
("Why most packs of skull-bound neurons aren't schizophrenic is not well understood.")
Is it possible that the Hard Problem of consciousness has a simple answer?
(James Tichenor writes: "When I said simple, I meant simple. Like simple even for a layman like me to understand! If this is your simple answer, I’d love to see the complicated one!")
Forgive me James. Here’s another bash.
Sometimes hard questions are impossible to answer only because they presuppose one or more background assumptions that later turns out to be false. Compare, e.g. “Why can’t we detect the luminiferous aether needed so light waves can propagate through empty space?” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminiferous_aether)
Now recall a question posed by outspoken materialist Stephen Hawking: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Hawking says we have no idea. Nonetheless, Hawking (like most of us) takes it for granted that this elusive “fire” in the equations - the intrinsic nature of the physical stuff of the world - is non-experiential. This innocent-sounding assumption is not a scientific discovery: it’s an extremely plausible metaphysical claim. If this metaphysical claim is true, then we face the Hard Problem of consciousness, as christened by David Chalmers. Physics – or at least tomorrow’s physics – is closed and complete. So how can something non-experiential – the “fire” in the equations – give rise to the conscious mind reading this sentence? Why aren’t you a p-zombie? (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie)
The answer of non-materialist physicalism is simple. Yes, Hawking and other scientific triumphalists are right. Everything in the world can ultimately be expressed by the mathematical formalism of physics: the Standard Model or its extensions. Physics rules! Yet the “fire” in the equations, the essence of the physical, is subjective experience. Your own mind discloses one tiny part of this “fire” in the equations. The solutions to the field-theoretic equations of physics exhaustively yield the values of experience. On this story, what makes you special isn’t that you’re made up of some kind of experiential field, different in kind from the non-experiential fields making up of the rest of the non-biological universe. Rather, you are special because of the way your field of experience is organised – the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. You couldn’t be a so-called p-zombie because are p-zombies are physically impossible. The notional possibility of p-zombies rests on hypothesising some unphysical, aether-like, non-experiential “stuff” that has no place in any mature scientific understanding of the world. So a “simple” answer, yes.
But is it true?
I don’t know.
"Special"? The conjecture that your mind instantiates a tiny part of the “fire” in the equations is the opposite of claiming that humans are ontologically special. Contrast the claim of materialism that a completely insentient bundle of cells in the womb abruptly “switches on” a spark of consciousness (How? Why? When? The miracle of turning water into wine pales in comparison.)
What does make humans and other animals with central nervous systems unusual is the way that our consciousness is bound into individual perceptual objects (“local" binding) populating a phenomenal world-simulation apprehended by a unitary self ("global” binding). I cheated a bit when I said the Hard Question might have a simple answer. Anyone (including some very hard-nosed scientists) who believes that the Hard Problem of materialist metaphysics can be dissolved by treating consciousness as ontologically fundamental must explain why we aren't so-called micro-experiential zombies - as you are when in a dreamless sleep, and as plants and silicon robots are all the time.
What would happen if the "fire" in the equations didn't exist? This is the challenging question of why anything exists at all: Why is there something rather than nothing?
[on the far future]
What's the most credible scenario for the future of life: Tardigrades or Galactic Superintelligence?
("Earth's last survivors of an apocalyptic event will be water bears")
Will full-spectrum #superintelligence display superhuman mind-reading prowess?
("In Praise of Systematic Empathy")
A pan-species welfare state will need autistic hyper-systematisers as much as tender-minded bunny lovers.
("Feral Bunnies Are Taking Over Las Vegas")
Utilitarian ethics may be computable; but without the spark of empathy, who would build the supercomputer to do so?
("Empathy is crucial to being a good person, right? Think again")
[on diet and nutrition]
Corn consumption positively correlates with human homicide rates - though is low tryptophan/serotonin the villain of the piece?
("A diet of corn is transforming French hamsters into raging cannibals")
The battle against postprandial somnolence ("food coma"): can you eat and stay sharp?
("Are 'food comas' real or a figment of your digestion")
Do you enjoy luminous clarity of mind or an introspective void?
("How to become a ‘clean thinker’ and get rid of middle-aged brain fog")
Quitting meat and eating whole-grain wheat, rice, oats and barley products is a recipe for longer human and nonhuman life. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-02-grains-metabolism-calorie-loss.html
("New study finds that eating whole grains increases metabolism and calorie loss")
Alternatively, liking dark and twisted jokes could be sign of empathy deficits and impaired social cognition.
("Liking dark and twisted jokes could be sign of intelligence")
[on free will]
Bartek, yes, both t'Hooft-style superdeterminism ("the ultimate conspiracy theory") and Everettian QM are inconsistent with free will. The alternative is to accept spooky non-locality (cf. http://www.nature.com/news/cosmic-test-backs-quantum-spookiness-1.21401) The only way I can think of to salvage free will would involve allowing the actions of all conscious agents collectively to determine the "constants" of Nature - with a full-spectrum superintelligence contributing to their value more than a mouse. For lots of reasons, I don't think this will work.
Consciousness? Well, as a (tentative) non-materialist physicalist, I take seriously the possibility that consciousness is conserved, neither created nor destroyed. (cf. http://www.physicalism.com) Yet unless such fields of consciousness are phenomenally bound, then we'd be zombies in all but name. Death? Well, I think we all timelessly live in a higher-dimensional Hilbert space from which you'll never be deleted. But BN or DCP probably won't walk the Earth in Year 3000...
[on the death of a loved one]
In my view, no one gets deleted from space-time: we (tenselessly) occupy the co-ordinates in space-time/Hilbert space we do.
This possibility can be consoling or demoralising depending on whether one is a classical or negative utilitarian.
I'm here. In what sense is stuff going on in Australia real - after all, it's there.
However, if "time is what stops everything happening all at once", space is what stops everything happening all in the same place.
All are equally real.
My finitism? Perhaps space-time is finite but unbounded.
Ultimately perhaps we all (tenselessly) live in a higher-dimensional Hilbert space from which you'll never be deleted.
(cf. "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation" by Jan-Markus Schwindt https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf)
Hilbert space is typically treated as infinite-dimensional,
But see: http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2820
Hilbert space is also typically treated as a mere mathematical fiction. However, I'm a realist when it comes to QM. Recall I conjecture that when we probe the mind-brain at the right temporal resolution with molecular matter-wave interferometry, we'll detect a perfect structural match between physics and our phenomenology of mind. This is my answer to David Chalmers "structural mismatch" argument for dualism. The perfect structural match isn't in three-dimensional space or four-dimensional space-time but rather in the (realistically interpreted!) higher-dimensional wavefunction space of QM.
[on a hyperthymic civilisation]
I'd like to see more scientific research done on today's "positive" genetic outliers – people in the top 0.1% for pain tolerance and for hyperthymia. ("I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point” – FHI’s Anders Samberg). I'm thinking of studies of exceptional “healthy” people rather than folk with congenital analgesia or euphoric mania. Aiming for a "low pain, high hedonic set-point” society for both human and nonhuman animals isn’t as ambitious as some grandiose plan to abolish unpleasant experience altogether – let alone a civilisation based entirely on gradients of bliss. But quality of life would potentially still be much richer for everyone – humans and nonhumans alike. However, would studies show systematic cognitive bias in favour of e.g. greater risk-taking or diminished empathy? I sometimes cite the high hedonic set-points of people working in the field of existential risk, but of course this is anecdote, not study. If we are to move to a minimal pain, hyperthymic society later this century and beyond, then proper risk-evaluation will be needed – even though such a world strikes some of us as self-evidently more civilised than today’s miseries.
[on smart foods]
Smart nutrition? Marmite:
(Marmite may boost brain and even help stave off dementia")
[on ethyl alcohol]
Ibudilast: an anti-inflammatory mood-brightener that also reduces problem drinking?
("Drug shows promise for treating alcoholism. Study finds an anti-inflammatory medication appears to reduce cravings, improve mood")
[on maths and mathematical beauty]
Maths vs Physics
But you'll probably learn more about string theory from reading Ed Witten than talking to the local village nominalist.
"Some of these transformations are more pleasant than the others." (Andrés Gomez Emilsson)
Hierarchy of Transformations
If I were a strong mathematician, I'd probably agree with you Andrés! Spared of this confounding bias, I'd argue the opposite. With microelectrodes, reinforcement learning, or indeed a bit of neurological tweaking, a neuroscientist could invert your preference ranking - or alternatively, make each transformation seem equally (dis)agreeable by its very nature.
A mathematician might protest, "But only I can apprehend true beauty!" But compare the assertion that e.g. the features of 20 year old women of prime reproductive potential are intrinsically sexy, whereas the perceptions of other folk are somehow less "natural" (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paraphilias) Claims for the primacy of one's own fetishised intentional objects need to be treated with scepticism. Yes, we can give an evolutionary story of why some intentional objects are more readily fetishised than others – sometimes fetishised so powerfully that their agreeable nature seems built into the very fabric of reality. Folk who disagree with our perceptions are simply deluded. Yet (IMO) the only thing that is intrinsically pleasurable is pleasure itself. When we (1) identify the molecular signature of pure bliss in our twin hedonic spots, and (2) understand the neurological basis of phenomenal binding, we should be able to "paint” indescribable bliss on literally any of our neocortical representations (or their transformations) as desired: paradise-engineering.
* * *
"Math = bliss?" wonders Andrés. Any strong mathematician will find some equations beautiful and others ugly. The physical world can be described by equations that mathematicians recognise as beautiful. ("The universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician" - James Jeans) So is there some deep connection between human aesthetic bliss and mathematical beauty? Should low-AQ mathematical dullards really be gazing at some relativistic generalisation of the universal Schrödinger equation and purring with delight?
Maybe. I'm just not yet convinced.
"Beautiful" equations can have extremely ugly solutions. These solutions include the miseries of Darwinian life. If we understood the full implications of the equations - a feat beyond even world-class mathematical physicists today - then we'd understand how the ugliness infects the equations themselves. This is not a welcome message, or at least not to the mathematically-minded. By analogy, imagine reminding someone whose greatest pleasure in life is enjoying natural beauty that "Nature, red in tooth and claw" can be a hellish place.
That said, perhaps our superhappy successors will contemplate the master equation of the TOE and marvel how it encodes such delights. I certainly hope so. But if this is the case, then Darwinian primitives will understand something blissful posthumans can't grasp.
If the finitist version of non-materialist physicalism is true, then yes, the number of micro-experiences in the multiverse is intuitively very, very large. But the number of micro-experiences is actually very very small – compared to an infinite number of experiences. This matters (cf. https://nickbostrom.com/ethics/infinite.pdf) – although “psychic numbing” can mistakenly make one feel that the distinction is pedantic. Most mathematicians hate finitism, understandably. But compare. In order to transcend solipsism-of-the-here-and-now, it’s necessary to assume a non-naturalistic conception of reference. According to the “magical” theory of reference, one physical state of the world can be "about" another physical state, i.e. semantic realism. An exceptionally fertile branch of referential "magic" is mathematical platonism. In defiance of any epistemological justification (cf. Benaceraff's dilemma, http://www.columbia.edu/~jc4345/benacerraf%20with%20bib.pdf), one assumes the existence of abstract objects, starting with the integers. What then tumbles out is the amazing edifice of modern mathematics, ranging from e.g. https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=3445 ("My Big Numbers talk at Festivaletteratura") to Cantor’s infinite hierarchy of infinities. But especially if one is a strong mathematician, it’s easy to forget one is guilty of original sin. (cf. Hartry Field’s “Science Without Numbers; a Defense of Nominalism” - https://www.amazon.com/Science-without-Numbers-Hartry-Field/dp/0198777922)
[on naturally evolved quantum supercomputers]
Raising the stakes for a successful theory of consciousness.
Stuart, my working assumption is that your mind-brain is a quantum computer running a phenomenally bound classical world-simulation in almost real time. You are what a naturally evolved quantum computer "feels like from the inside". Unlike e.g. the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory, the conjecture doesn’t rest on any new physics. Rather, I assume quantum mechanics is formally complete. Researchers working on the foundations of QM have long been stymied by the Problem of Definite Outcomes - and more recently, whether or not the decoherence program in post-Everett QM really solves the mystery (cf. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10757/). If we assume nothing but the unitary dynamics, what explains the apparent collapse of the wavefunction on measurement in accordance with the Born rule? You observe a definite classical cat - either dead or alive, not superposed dead-and-alive. If the superposition principle of QM has universal validity, in micro-world and macro-world alike, then why are superpositions never experienced or observed, only inferred?
My (very) tentative answer is that only the universal validity of the superposition principle allows your mind/brain to experience determinate classical-looking objects - such as your cat or a determinate pointer-reading - in a phenomenally bound world-simulation amenable to description by an approximation of the laws of classical physics. Only the existence of coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors allows you to instantiate a macroscopic phenomenal world of medium-sized dry objects. Non-materialist physicalism - and the “bare formalism” of wavefunction monism - is a recipe for what you’re experiencing right now.
OK, intuitively this is crazy - for all sorts of reasons.
(1) The theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS is femtoseconds or less - so short-lived they've not yet been detected, although only a minority of physicists anticipate that molecular matter-wave interferometry will detect any derivation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. (cf. https://phys.org/news/2015-10-physicists-quantum-spookiness-schrodinger-cat.html)
(2) Even if we grant - as proposed by non-materialist physicalism - that such fleeting superpositions are experiential, they could at most just be functionless psychotic noise. Surely no mechanism exists to co-opt hypothetical neuronal superpositions into playing any functional role in the CNS? Compare the learning algorithms of mainstream connectionist neuroscience.
On (1) yes, indeed: I'm not proposing a novel theory of physics, or any modification or supplementation of the unitary dynamics. The CNS decoherence timescales I use are drawn mainly from Max Tegmark and Maximilian Schlosshauer (cf. https://www.amazon.com/Decoherence-Classical-Transition-Frontiers-Collection/dp/3540357734) – no friends of quantum mind.
(2) On the contrary, just a selection mechanism exists to turn you from psychotic noise into a quantum supercomputer! Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_Darwinism) is no shallow, tricksy metaphor, as one might first assume.
Quantum Darwinism is standardly used by physicists working on the decoherence program to explain the emergence of quasi-classicality in the mind-independent world (cf. http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/10940/1/Wallace_review_final_single-spaced.pdf) Yet what happens when we apply the decoherence program to the inside of your skull?
Naively, what plays out in your skull is the emergence of 86 billion odd membrane-bound classical neurons. Hence the phenomenal binding/combination problem - as classically posed - and the impossible structural mismatch between our minds and the microstructure of the CNS that ultimately impels David Chalmers to dualism. (cf. http://consc.net/papers/combination.pdf)
Less naively? Well, think of four billion years of Darwinian selection pressure as conventionally conceived. Now imagine selection pressure of far greater intensity exerted on (non-)psychotic coherent neuronal superpositions every microsecond of your life. (cf. Robin Hanson’s "mangled worlds”, http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/mangledworlds.html, though substitute “mangled world-simulations” in this context.) In my view, it's this insanely powerful mechanism that allows a naturally evolved quantum computer like you to run a classical world-simulation at quadrillions of individual quantum-coherent “frames” per second.
Anyhow, as I said, crazy stuff. But the conjecture answers 1 to 4 in Andres' "Raising the Stakes" post. Critically, it’s experimentally falsifiable, i.e. it offers novel and precise empirical predictions, not just dressed-up retrodictions. Either the non-classical interference signature disclosed by molecular matter-wave interferometry will independently reveal a perfect structural march between our phenomenally bound minds and the formalism of physics, or it won't: https://www.physicalism.com/#6. Note the conjectured perfect structural match we’ll be probing for isn't in four-dimensional space-time but rather in the higher-dimensional wavefunction space of QM.
When I outlined the proposal last year at Tucson, I got the impression David Chalmers reckoned it was bonkers - certainly a gut-feeling I share. But - hats off to Chalmers - he's apparently given it some thought and agrees the conjecture needs experimentally falsifying. (cf. https://www.reddit.com/r/philosophy/comments/5vji57/im_david_chalmers_philosopher_interested_in/de2sb4b/?st=izk4g6p6&sh=7b9f72cd) Stepping back, I don't seriously believe in it myself; I just think the alternatives, e.g. dualism or radical eliminativism (e.g. https://nothingismere.com/2017/02/23/phenomenal-consciousness-is-a-quasiperceptual-illusion-objections-and-replies/) - are more incredible still, which is saying something.
[on effective altruism]
Effective altruism (EA): what are our core values?
("Fundamental Values and the Relevance of Uncertainty")
“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’”
(Martin Luther King)
Or like the egocentric illusion, is metaphysical individualism just a genetically adaptive trick engineered by selfish DNA?
https://www.amazon.com/dp/1546511504/">You Are Them by Magnus Vinding.
Infectious altruism? Perhaps microbiologists could engineer epidemics of morality, despite cases of innate immunity
("Microbes may encourage altruistic behavior")
Superhuman selflessness is admirable. Alas effective altruism probably depends on developing biotechnology and IT to make the price of altruism negligible. In a reprogrammed biosphere based on gradients of bliss, everyone wins...
("Selfless Biology of the Extreme Altruist. What is the opposite of a psychopath? What is the limit of human goodness")
The massively amplifying tools of biotechnology can make the well-being of all sentience as easy as pressing "love".
("On Facebook, love reactions triumph over hate. The heart reaction dominated your social feed in 2016")
Mom was right: chewing food thoroughly promotes health:
("Research reveals surprising health benefits of chewing your food")
Vitamin D supplementation: alternatively, go for a stroll in the sun.
("Vitamin D 'proved to cut risk of colds and flu'")
Medicine and health are too important to be left to doctors, and software-based diagnostics can soon be free.
("Forget your GP, robots will 'soon be able to diagnose more accurately than almost any doctor'")
[on autism spectrum disorder, masculinity and AQ]
Alternatively, how high is your AQ?
("How to Email. An etiquette update: Brevity is the highest virtue")
Could autism be a cognitive blessing in a world seemingly designed by a SuperAsperger?
("Women with a thicker brain cortex are more likely to have autism")
What level of testosterone is optimal for civilisation?
("“After I started taking testosterone, I became interested in science…")
"It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” (Tolstoy)
Will truth always be ugly?
("Meitu: 'Beauty' selfie app surges in popularity as people perform drastic makeovers on their photos")
Is your body more of a temple or a pharmacy warehouse?
("How Two Florida Gym Rats Conquered the Shadowy World of Dietary Supplements")
Should we choose our optimal level of testosterone function - or accept what Mother Nature has given us?
Higher testosterone linked to reduced closeness in social relationships")
Complicating matters: is "postural expansiveness" the key to attraction?
("A Surprising Secret of Attraction. If you want people to swipe right, be "expansive" in your profile picture.")
Too many white male vegans...?
"Uh oh...Your Vegan Panel is All White or Male"
Perhaps comparative cognitive style is relevant. Utilitarians and effective altruists are more likely to be white, male hyper-systematisers in virtue of our higher AQ scores. (cf. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/apr/17/research.highereducation) Compare too the otherwise anomalous disproportionate number of female vegetarians versus the approximately even ratio of male-to-female vegans. Also, Ashkenazi Jews tend to have abnormally AQ scores, as do (to a lesser extent) Caucasian Europeans (cf. http://hsnewsbeat.uw.edu/story/human-neanderthal-gene-variance-involved-autism) Black people (who typically lack Neanderthal DNA) tend to record lower AQ scores.
("The Myth of the Black Aspergian")
("Israel Goes Vegan")
And so forth.
Differences in cognitive style may turn out to be play only a small role in explaining speaker disparity: I can think of other, much more plausible reasons. But I guess it’s the sort of cofounding variable one needs to rule out before drawing conclusions...
[on quantum Darwinism]
"Quantum Darwinism" in the CNS
Comparatively stable, yes. John Campbell's "Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process" offers a nice overview: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf Again without modifying the unitary dynamics, we may imagine comparatively stable and robust feature-processing neurons surviving environmental monitoring and emerging with your head so you can phenomenally simulate comparatively stable and robust mind-independent classicality – "consensus reality". However, if this were really the case, then you'd be a micro-experiential zombie: 86 billion-odd membrane-bound pixels of experience. Mere synchronous firing of distributed neuronal feature-processors is not sufficient to generate your experience of seeing, say, a live cat. In my answer, I explore the possibility that "synchrony" is really superposition. Applying Zurek’s Darwinian paradigm in the CNS leads to ferocious selection pressure against micro-experiential zombies in favour of unified subjects of experience. Speculative, as I stress. * * *
Roeland, thanks, perhaps I should remove the hotlink. I think Orch-OR is mistaken, Critically, however, Orch-OR is experimentally falsifiable to the satisfaction of critics and proponents alike.
Testing quantum theories of consciousness that don't involve a failure of unitarity is harder. Yet once again, the claim that phenomenal binding is classical or non-classical isn't a philosophical opinion - or rather shouldn't be treated as such - but instead a scientifically falsifiable conjecture to be settle by interferometry not armchair speculation. Hence the amount of time I spend on Facebook.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT): can we create its superior functional analog in pill form?
("Can high-intensity interval training delay the ageing process? Researchers have found that short-burst exercise might have rejuvenating effects – but there can be such a thing as too much intensity")
Can whole-body vibration replace exercise?
("Whole-body vibration may be as effective as regular exercise")
Or become a virtual super-marathoner with a pill?
("Scientists take aim at diabetes and obesity with exercise in a pill")
Myostatin inhibitors may enhance performance and longevity, but "miracle pills" would be...miraculous.
("Miracle 'exercise pill' could be used to mimic the effect of going to the gym")
Exercise: does "runner's high" come from opioids or cannabinoids or both?
("The Reason You Get a 'Runner's High' Is Not What You Think")
[on negative utilitarianism and cosmic rescue missions]
Simon, imagine (don't ask me the details) that one is an ethical demi-god with powers over a single sterile solar system but nothing more far-reaching. Would one create an Earth-like planet full of suffering sentience on the off-chance that its most intelligent species would not merely eradicate suffering on its own planet, but also go on to eradicate suffering elsewhere within its cosmological horizon?
From an NU or NU-leaning perspective, presumably a critical consideration here is the rarity or abundance of pain-ridden Darwinian life within the ultimate scope of intelligent moral agency. I currently incline to the Rare Earth view, primarily on the grounds of the "thermodynamic miracle" (Eric Drexler’s term) of life's origin. The principle of mediocrity is often taken to dictate that life will turn out to be common elsewhere in the accessible universe and indeed our Galaxy. Yet it's also possible that the percentage of life-supporting Hubble volumes where primordial life arises more than once is low. Multiple genesis scenarios may even be vanishingly rare. If so, then the principle of mediocrity suggests that we are effectively alone. On this Rare Earth hypothesis, the hypothetical ethical demigod above should not create an Earth-like planet. Quite aside the immense suffering that such an experiment cause directly, its inhabitants might radiate across their galaxy and cause suffering elsewhere where none previously existed – a more likely scenario than successful cosmic rescue missions for primitive Darwinian life.
Of course, the Rare Earth hypothesis may be wrong. My guess is we’ll know later this century, one way or the other, once we understand more about the genesis of life on Earth. Yes, it may be the case that we have to assume wider cosmological responsibilities, though the accelerating expansion of the universe would appear to rule out interventions beyond our Local Cluster even by posthuman superintelligence.
Anyhow, as you'll have guessed, the point of modifying your thought-experiment is to try to disentangle principled objection from mere status quo bias. Yet unlike many thought-experiments that aim to invert our intuitions, strong NU grounds can be given in this case for saying that no, an ethical demi-god wouldn't create an Earth-like planet, but given that we're stuck with one, we shouldn't explore apocalyptic solutions. Thus a worldwide multi-gigaton Doomsday device simply isn't going to get built. Other extreme options seem a likely recipe for even more suffering(?. So I find myself in the incongruous (if not hypocritical-sounding) position of being a notional “button pusher” who believes that all policymakers and bioethicists should uphold the principle of the sanctity of life…
* * *
Is your theory of ethics a disguised recipe for Armageddon?
The World Destruction Argument
Thanks Simon for such a thoughtful and scholarly response. Are "the ones who walk away from Omelas" (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_from_Omelas) or simply folk who agree with Gautama Buddha ("I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering") in the grip of "a devastatingly callous" theory? If we are really in the realm of button-pressing hypotheticals, the implications of CU seem at least as apocalyptic as NU (cf. http://www.hedweb.com/social-media/pre2014.html). Yet no one says to CUs, "Ah, so you're plotting to destroy civilisation with a utilitronium shockwave!"
"...there are bounds set by physics on how much information can be stored & processed by one kilogram of matter...Could there exist similar bounds on how much value one kilogram of matter could embody?"
("That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox") * * *
How do you cope with suffering?
Perhaps imagine two buttons, SAVE and COPY. Pressing COPY creates a type-identical version of our world, with all its pleasures but also all its unspeakable and involuntary suffering. Pressing SAVE prevents our world from being painlessly retired.
I guess at least 99% of people would press SAVE. Many people would consider not pressing SAVE ethically monstrous. Yet what percentage of people would also press the COPY button? At the very least, most people would think long and hard. Many people would decline. Is one really ethically obliged to create vastly more severe, involuntary suffering than the worst torturer in history? In other words, how much of our response to your question boils down to status quo bias?
So should the ethically-minded be plotting Armageddon?
No, in my view. The world has no clean OFF button. Whether you are a Buddhist, a Benatarian, a negative utilitarian, or simply appalled by the enormity of suffering in the world, the best practical ways to minimise suffering also involve upholding the sanctity of life.
Disguised apocalyptic implications are implicit not just in contemporary NU and (less obviously) CU, but also in ethical systems as diverse as Buddhism and the hedonism of classical antiquity.
Of course, no one could ask the Cyrenaics or Gautama Buddha whether they'd "snuff out" civilisation with a utilitronium shockwave. But the disguised implication of the ethic is still there, just not the technological imagination to bring it to pass.
* * *
You can't destroy the quantum library of Babel, unlike its classical counterpart...
[on lust and eroticism]
Social drinking: simple minds and Nobel laureates enjoy getting drunk in company.
("Crayfish may help researchers understand drunkenness. What happens when you get a crayfish wrecked")
[on lust and eroticism]
Kisspetin: Will "mental Viagra" soon rekindle your lust for life?
("'Mental Viagra' on horizon as scientists boost lust signals in brain")
"All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream."
(Edgar Allan Poe)
Philosophers are fond of thought-experiments. What would the world be like if everyone had chronic REM Sleep Behavior Disorder and "acted out" their dreams?
The symbol grounding problem
* * *
"God is an Englishman." (E.M. Delafield) But learning lesser tongues too may be good for the brain.
("Bilingualism may save brain resources as you age")
Like semantic meaning, abstract objects like numbers are a useful fiction.
("'Anumeric' people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?")
"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."(George Orwell)
Oh to speak posthuman.
("In Search Of Humanity’s Oldest Words")
Dolorese is the language of Hell. (cf. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dolor)
English is understood if not spoken (cf. Happy Words Trump Negativity in the English Language" https://www.wired.com/2011/08/english-positivity/).
Hedonese is the language of post-human paradise. We could learn the words, but we wouldn’t understand what they mean.
Superhuman bliss: sometimes I think Andrés' brain is halfway there already...
I once had a nightmarish dream in which FHI's Anders Sandberg - "I do have a ridiculously high hedonic set-point" - confided that he was secretly extremely unhappy. Was I overcome with compassion? Sadly no, I recall being annoyed that I'd now need to edit out my standard example of lifelong high-functioning well-being and replace Anders with someone else. I'm glad to say I later woke up.]
Machiavellian intelligence? Can AI outwit cunning but primitive humans in poker and life?
("After day one, AI is crushing humanity at poker")
"A pack of cards is the devil's prayer-book." (German proverb)
Will AI beat Satan at his own game?
Presumably our successors will believe 540 million years of suffering were a price worth paying for superhuman bliss. Are they right?
("Unhappy or Depressed? In the Future, Everything Will Be All Right!")
As the Bible relates, even Heaven has it problems (cf. the abortive coup by Satan and his associates). But the problems of a posthuman world founded on gradients of superhuman bliss will differ from the miseries of Darwinian life.
History doesn't record a single instance of female human primates banding together for the purposes of waging territorial wars of aggression. Likewise with female chimpanzees. Alas, asking male human leaders to give up power is utopian. What might - conceivably - not be utopian is global enactment of a "sunset clause" on male governance that kicks in, say, 30 years from now. From then on, we elect only women to political high office. An all-female political cadre would be a crude but effective way to prevent catastrophic war. Of course, confining men to a policy advisory role would be "unfair". But the stakes are so high, perhaps it's worth the unfairness? If you ask people in the abstract whether they'd support a safety-measure leading to a 95% + reduction of risk of war, they naturally say "Yes!" - so long as you don't mention the nature of safety-measure in question.
Perhaps compare e.g. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201706/who-would-agree-have-sex-total-stranger ("this is one of the largest sex differences ever discovered in psychological science") Banding together to wage territorial wars of aggression just isn't part of the female “behavioural phenotype”. For sure, genes and culture co-evolved. No one is claiming that all-female political leadership would wholly eliminate the risk of catastrophic war. Rather, it's a case of weighing risk-reward ratios. Analogously, some people can still drive better after drinking a bottle of wine than other drivers who are stone-cold sober. But we accept crude, discriminatory drink drive laws as a price worth paying for fewer road accidents. With war and peace, the stakes are immeasurably higher. "Illegal aliens have always been a problem in the United States. Ask any Indian.” (Robert Orben)
Are opioid users likely to vote Trump?
("Trump's Election Map Also Maps "Despair Deaths")
Presumably the brand risks reputational damage, though the product has a loyal user base.
("Florida heroin bust reveals something bizarre: Drugs covered in Donald Trump’s face")
When will social life no longer resemble a baboon troop on the African savannah?
("The twisted psychology of office cliques")
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Was Lord Acton too pessimistic?
("Why Power Brings Out Your True Self. Are you a tyrant or a servant?")
2017: we are sleepwalking towards the abyss.
("The Week the World Almost Ended. In 1983, the U.S. simulated a nuclear war with Russia—and narrowly avoided starting a real one. We might not be so lucky next time.")
The linguistic biomarkers of presenile dementia are troubling if the patient has access to thermonuclear weapons.
("Donald Trump remembers the cake he was eating while launching missiles, but forgets country he was attacking")
Utopian communities can work if we design and safe sustainable analogs of MDMA - or hardwire its genetic counterpart.
Can the USA ever aspire to Cuban levels of healthcare? Or at least match UK or Scandinavian standards? We can argue about the optimal balance of free markets / state intervention in a modern liberal democracy. But treating healthcare as a "market" debases civilised society.
("Sen. Tom Harkin says Cuba has lower child mortality, longer life expectancy than U.S.")
The environment: who needs it?
("US Republicans launch effort to abolish Environmental Protection Agency with new bill")
Will transhumans transcend chimpanzee politics or offload political power to smart AI?
("Chimps beat up, murder and then cannibalise their former tyrant")
Humans kill billions of sentient beings from other species, and will probably soon kill billions of their own. The long-term future of life may be superhuman bliss, but the 21st century is likely to be grim.
("The truth about Satan: Nuclear war in the 21st century")
Hard drugs and refined sugar are best discouraged in the young.
("High-sugar diet programs a short lifespan in flies")
Transhumanism: we should phase out aging - but also archaic Homo sapiens:
("'To Be A Machine' Digs Into The Meaning Of Humanity")
Do you view your body as a performative machine or the temple of the soul?
("Why more men struggle with aging")
Can the epigenetic aging clock be frozen or reversed to promote indefinite healthy lifespans?
("Mouse epigenetic aging clock uncovered")
Downhill all the way?
Or the best is yet to come?
I look forward to a "better-than-well" wonderpill.
("Here Are the Ages You Peak at Everything Throughout Life")
Babies are normally racists. The evolutionary roots of prejudice against members of other races and species run deep.
("Infants show racial bias toward members of own ethnicity, against those of others")
Can osteopontin rejuvenate?
("Old blood can be made young again and it might fight ageing") Should we be consuming prickly pear and brown seaweed extracts?
("Chemicals in ubiquitous Mediterranean plants may hold key to delaying neurodegenerative diseases, study suggests")
Or evolution says recursively self-improving organic robots will rewrite their own source code and enjoy eternal youth.
("Billionaires say they’ll end disease: evolution says otherwise")
Transhumanism: solving the problem of death entails not murdering billions of sentient beings in slaughterhouses.
("Only Human. Meet the hackers trying to solve the problem of death")
[on the AntiSpeciesist Revolution]
The Antispeciesist Revolution
("The AntiSpeciesist Revolution")
Thanks David. We do need an Antispeciesist Revolution. My only reservation is the term. Naively, it sounds as though the antispeciesist is arguing that "all animals are equal" - and that in the case of a severe and irreconcilable conflict of interests, we should give as much weight to a mosquito as to a mammal. Not so - though of course we may hope in the long run even the humblest of beings can flourish unmolested.
Eat sparingly with optimal nutrition is a better recipe for a long, healthy life than dietary heroics. (IMO)
("Calorie restriction diet extends life of monkeys by years")
The quest for eternal youth: is it better to bathe in the blood of young virgins or fill your veins with their blood?
("For $8,000 this startup will fill your veins with the blood of young people")
CRISPR: should we turn the spiritual desert of ordinary waking consciousness into lifelong transcendent bliss?
("Religion has no monopoly on transcendent experience")
Optogenetics: should we create happy & gentle mice or "Walking Dead-style zombie killers"?
("Mice can be turned into Walking Dead-style zombie killers, scientists discover. Researchers use a laser to activate brain cells that prompt the mouse to hunt and kill anything in its path – crickets, bottle tops, sticks ...")
[on reductive physicalism]
Metaphysical Viagra? A cure for causal impotence...
Is consciousness physical or non-physical?
Monistic physicalism and reductionism are often reckoned inseparable: "strong" emergence is tantamount to magic. Thus the reductive physicalist should be sceptical that unitary subjects of experience will ever "emerge" in our digital computers even if non-materialist physicalism is true, i.e. QFT is really about fields of sentience rather than insentience. Yet there's a complication for reductive physicalism of any stripe - how serious we don't know. What of the holism of quantum mechanics, beloved by New Age woo-merchants? Whereas in classical physics the whole is no more than the sum of its parts, in quantum theory, crudely, the properties of the whole determine the properties of the parts. If quantum theory is complete, and thus reality is exhausted by a one gigantic cosmic superposition (i.e. wavefunction monism: http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199790807.001.0001/acprof-9780199790807-chapter-9), then reductionism is false precisely because physicalism is true. "Reductive physicalism" is a contradiction in terms.
Yet your PC is a classical computer. The superposition principle doesn't break down in its CPU; but we're not going to bother performing delicate interferometry experiments to probe if e.g. video-game characters are really unitary subjects of experience. (cf. https://www.quora.com/How-many-errors-in-the-CPU-happen-because-of-quantum-mechanical-effects-i-e-tunneling) They are just bits and bytes. Reductionism is true - for all practical purposes (FAPP).
Which brings us to the human mind. What of the conscious, phenomenally bound world-simulation your CNS is running right now? Once again, unless Penrose or other "dynamical collapse" theorists are correct, the superposition principle of QM doesn't break down in your head. But - intuitively - reductionism is still true FAPP: routine neuroscanning and neuroanatomy suggest that you're effectively a pack of classical decohered neurons whose behaviour will eventually be explained by connectionist learning algorithms in classically parallel neural networks. Naively, no conceivable mechanism exists that could harness quantum coherence in a system like the CNS with so many degrees of freedom. What possible use is an individual neuronal superposition of distributed feature-processors with an such an unimaginably short lifetime? The holism of our phenomenally bound minds and the holism of QM is just a superficial coincidence.
So the binding problem is unsolved. Why aren't we micro-experiential zombies?
Yet this dismissal may prove too quick. There does exist - potentially - an inconceivably powerful selection-mechanism for sculpting neuronal macro-superpositions that plays out every moment of our lives. Whether natural selection has co-opted it, I don't know. The first time I encountered "quantum Darwinism", my immediate thought was that lazy metaphors and pop-science lay ahead. Not so: if you haven't had the chance to read it yet, see Campbell's lucid non-technical exposition: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1001/1001.0745.pdf. The parallel with Darwinian natural selection is tight. But what has "quantum Darwinism" to do with our consciousness? After all, theorists working on the decoherence program are invoking a selection mechanism to explain the emergence from quantum reality of observer-independent classicality, not the sculpting of quantum minds. By the same token, if non-materialist physicalism is true, then quantum Darwinism offers an explanation of why you're a micro-experiential zombie when you're in a dreamless sleep. Yet consider the mysterious, classically impossible state of consciousness we call being "awake". On the conjecture I explore on physicalism.com, each of the cf. 1015 individual macro-superpositions-per-second that makes up your phenomenally bound waking world-simulation is "legal" according to QM - i.e. no new principle of physics is at work here, even if I were smart enough (no way!) to devise some modification of the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. With a powerful enough selection-mechanism, there's no need for a Divine Movie-Maker any more than a Divine Watchmaker (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchmaker_analogy). Photosynthesis and "quantum robins" aside, we normally assume natural selection hasn't been clever enough to design quantum information-processors; but if commonsense is wrong, then your classical world-simulation is what a quantum mind feels like from the inside.
Transhumanist economist and polymath Robin Hanson once wrote a paper on "mangled worlds": http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/mangledworlds.html". What's relevant here is phenomenal world-simulations. "Mangled", phase-scrambled world-simulations and psychotic micro-experiential zombies are all real, just as dreamless sleepers are real, but they aren't reading or writing this text. Perhaps imagine everyday life as Nature's version of a quantum suicide experiment: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_suicide_and_immortality. Less figuratively, imagine the upshot of packing fiercer selection pressure into every micro-second of your life than has played out over four billion years of evolution via Darwinian natural selection.
Anyhow, don't worry, I don't really believe all this crazy stuff!
But any testable theory of consciousness that answers 1-4 (cf. http://www.physicalism.com/abstract.html) deserves to be experimentally falsified.
* * *
Thanks Lucas, yes, both classical and quantum mind theorists need to answer the question of identity over time: what makes two states of consciousness belong to the same person? The answer I'd give is that, regardless whether classical or quantum mind is true, strictly speaking they don't: personal identity over a time is an adaptive fiction. This Buddhist-like view has ancient antecedents. ("No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." - Heraclitus)
However, there is one form of unity that isn't fictional. Right now you are a subject of experience, not a micro-experiential zombie. What philosophers call the "synchronic" unity of consciousness is a huge mystery for physicalists if you're really just 86 billion or so membrane-bound classical neurons. We need to explain both "local" binding (e.g. you see a cat; you're not an aggregate of discrete "pixels" of distributed feature-processors) and "global" binding (cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMor2X7PMV4 , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYFhDzQ1rYU , etc).
Faced with a classically impossible phenomenon - the gross structural mismatch between mind and brain that drives David Chalmers to dualism - a mixed bunch of researchers over the years have turned to the radical holism of quantum theory. Could individual macro-superpositions ("cat states") in the CNS last way longer than we've believed possible?
Chris (rightly) alludes to Posner clusters. Pretty freaky, - my first thought was: those timescales are insane.
Andres and I take a conservative approach. Assume the decoherence timescales of quantum mind critics like Tegmark et al. are very roughly correct. What does this prove? If folk chronology of consciousness is true, then sure, the idea that sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors to underpin phenomenal binding is absurd. More to the point, such exotica are just random noise. Yet this is where "quantum Darwinism" (cf. https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms8908) comes in - not bold new physics, but just the fancy label for the decoherence program in no-collapse QM that explains the emergence of observer-independent classicality. Applied to the CNS, quantum Darwinism (potentially!) offers a mechanism - in Darwin's sense not Mendel's - for sculpting psychotic noise into the phenomenally bound world-simulation you're running right now. Note all I'm trying to do - all Andres is trying to do - is motivate an experimental refutation, not champion our favourite football team. Molecular matter-wave interferometry is incredibly technically demanding: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1367-2630/12/3/033015/meta). If everyone just thinks, "Crazy, why bother?") the experiment will never get done.
A non-classical interference signature from a trained up neuronal network that discloses nothing but noise will falsify both a "Schrodinger's neurons" conjecture and Orch-OR. Progress of sorts.
* * *
Same old story. If "patterns of neural activation cause experience", then dualism is true; identity isn't a causal relationship.
("'How to Imagine Consciousness', Roy Black, reply by Thomas Nagel")
Mike: "for every conscious experience, there exists a mathematical object isomorphic to its phenomenology".
Yes! This is what Einstein meant by saying no "element of reality" should be missing from the formalism of our best theory of the world. The most radical extension of this proposal is to transpose the entire mathematical machinery of modern science as encoded by the Standard Model to a subjectivist ontology. I don't know if such a reinterpretation is true. But if so, we already have to hand the formal tools to understand qualia and their interrelationships.
Alas telling people one suspects that mathematical physics is about patterns of qualia can earn some funny looks.
Some accidents might easily damage your career prospects.
("Queen 'nearly shot' by Buckingham Palace guard while walking late at night")
Translational medicine 2017:
("A cure for all ills: what medical advances can we expect in 2017") "An angel in heaven is nobody in particular" (George Bernard Shaw)
("‘Virtue Signaling’ Isn’t the Problem. Not Believing One Another Is")
"All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers." (François Fénelon)
("And all sentient beings are cousins.")
The Assassin's Teapot: I'd use long-acting euphoriants:
("The Assassin's Teapot")
Astrology: "45% confessed to finding out...partners' sun signs so they could manage their relationships better".
("How many people actually believe in astrology?")
Non-psychiatric drugs may exert subtle psychoactive effects, both acute and long-term.
("Low-dose penicillin in early life induces long-term behavioral changes")
Religion: we're all psychotic in our dreams, but some folk don't have lucid intervals.
("A Creationist Sues the Grand Canyon for Religious Discrimination")
Admirable. But UBI won't recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. Only genetic engineering can create a happy world.
("Want utopia? Start with universal basic income and a 15-hour work week")
If a new "brain in the gut", why not a new brain in the skull? The status quo bias of bioconservatives runs deep.
("Researchers discover birth-and-death life cycle of neurons in the adult mouse gut")
("I only have half a brain")
(cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20603163 - "Depression and the hyperactive right-hemisphere.")
Universal breatharianism would solve the problem of suffering. Alas for selection pressure.
("Breatharian’ couple survives on ‘the universe’s energy’ instead of food")
A rose by any other name...?
("Can you match the correct names to these faces? People identify strangers with amazing accuracy")
Research into e.g. synthetic CRISPR-based gene drives that could crash the global ecosystem probably does need oversight.
("Leaked Documents Reveal the NSA Spying on Scientists to Find 'Nefarious' Genetic Research")
Will transhumans and posthumans be rude, civil, or endowed with superhuman courtesy?
("How Rudeness Stops People from Working Together")
"For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently."
(Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)
Tideglusib: good news for philosophers - and future humans?
("'Tooth repair drug' may replace fillings")
The root of all evil? The evolutionary origin of pain-ridden Darwinian #life can be traced back 600 million years.
("Forget sponges: The earliest animals were marine jellies")
Assuming semantic content is really real leads to paradoxes / contradictions.
("The Outer Limits of Reason")
Jesus: mass cloning the Son of God might be an interesting experiment. But check for a missing Y chromosome.
("Can we ever find Jesus’s DNA? I met the scientists who are trying to find out")
Neuroscience: how do 86 billion genetically unique individuals learn to share a skull together?
("Scientists Surprised to Find No Two Neurons Are Genetically Alike")
"What would you do if you woke up dead?"
I'd probably diagnose myself with Cotard's Syndrome, aka the Cotard Delusion or Walking Corpse Syndrome. Alternatively, depending on how much self-insight was preserved, I might devise a diagnostic label, prognosis and treatment options for walking corpses convinced they were alive. At this point, further scenarios become rather gruesome.
Do you command #attention or solicit it? What's the best way to divide the world's finite attentional resources?
("This Analysis Of The Most Popular Clickbait Headline Phrases Will Make You Cry")
No. But programmable genomes matter more than programmable currencies.
("Do digital currencies spell the end of capitalism")
You don't need a neocortex to be sentient and smart.
("Ravens Are Smarter Than Human Children") "Makeup is my art" - and the UK art market isn't cheap.
("Average British woman spends £70,000 on her appearance in a lifetime, research finds")
Chronotype and peak cognition: should your time of optimal intellectual function be reserved for the university bar?
("Neuroscience research reveals that college students study best later in the day")
Diet: what is the optimal level of paternalism in a pan-species welfare state?
("Uncle Fat the morbidly obese monkey placed on diet in Thailand after junk food binge")
Mirror-touch synaesthesia: let's hope in future we can all get off on each other's pleasures...
("Meet The Woman Who Can't Help But Feel The Pain Of Others")
Decent homes for orangutans will take time, but learning carpentry is cool:
("The incredible moment an orangutan uses a SAW to cut tree branches after watching builders do the same")
A conservation effort or mothballs: what is the likely fate of Neopalpa donaldtrumpi?
("Researchers identify source of opioids' side effects")
How can we best reallocate the world's attentional resources?
("Why do female monkeys spend so long looking at rugged males?")
From the Mpemba effect to sentient organic wetware, the properties of water are still unexplained.
("The claim that hot water freezes faster than cold water just got even weirder")
The mind of a pigeon...
("Pigeons Have Abstract Intelligence and Can Understand Concepts of Space and Time")
The evolutionary roots of teenage angst run deep.
("Worms have teenage ambivalence, too")
Will posthumans think Darwinian life should be commemorated or (forgotten?
("Who will be remembered in 1000 Years?")
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10
David Pearce (2017)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-18
Social Network Postings (2018)