JANUARY 2018 -
[Quora Q & A]
Timeless truths that will echo down the ages?
Or webmasterdave's contribution to the library of Babel?
Alas, I can guess...
But Happy 2018!
Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything
[on humble minds]
Are you the centre of the universe/
Should we care about insects?
Possibly I take physics too seriously, but I think it's exactly like something to be the mind of a bee - and that exact something is indecipherably encoded in the solutions to the equations of QFT. Whether you or I can remotely imagine what it's like be a bee is another matter. Intuitively no, or at least not on pain of gross anthropomorphism ("If a lion could speak, we could not understand him" - Wittgenstein). My own view is that, for the most part, we aren't nearly anthropomorphic enough in our ascriptions of mental states to nonhuman animals. From phenomenal colours to core emotions such as fear and surprise to pleasure and pain (etc) we find similar behavioural responses and homologous genes and neurotransmitter pathways. What needn’t is an inclusive sense of “us” that embraces all sentient beings.
Transhumanism in El Pais...
El imperio del placer ("The empire of pleasure")
Yes, what’s the greater threat: coercive happiness or coercive misery? A surprising number of critics seem to worry that dark forces are conspiring to force them to be happy! Who? Where?! How?! Really it’s a question of choice. If you could choose, what would be the parameters of your ideal hedonic range? If the biology of today’s (involuntary) hedonic range stretches, schematically, from, say, -10 to 0 to + 10, the hedonic range of our genetically enriched successors can potentially stretch from, say, +70 to +100. Maybe some post-humans will indeed opt to spend their lives at or near +100, but sociologically it’s hard to visualise scenarios involving compulsion. Maybe some holdouts will opt to retain their traditional reward circuitry. Archaic humans will simply be missing out, that’s all. For now, simply getting rid of involuntary suffering is “utopian” enough.
Superintelligence As a Cause or Cure For Risks of Astronomical Suffering
A very nice paper. I worry about astronomical suffering too – less astronomical s-risk from rogue AGI, more about what the linearity of the universal Schrödinger equation entails. (Everettian hell-worlds and “ordinary” pain-ridden Darwinian life beyond rescue?) On a brighter note, reprogramming the biosphere and engineering minds based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss potentially guarantees a ridiculously high default quality of life for everyone in our forward lightcone. Genetically guaranteed biohappiness even changes the meaning of anything “going wrong”. However, superhappiness – even ultra-intelligent superhappiness – is a potential source of systematic cognitive bias and (if uncorrected bias) of s-risk, theoretically at any rate. Perhaps one potential s-risk from superhappiness can be glimpsed even today in hyperthymic / temperamentally optimistic futurists talking about running ancestor-simulations. What gives the Simulation Argument its bite is that running digital ancestor-simulations sounds precisely the kind of smart thing that an advanced civilisation might plausibly do. How cool! Yet the mood-congruent response of any advocate of suffering-focused ethics would be on the lines of, "So you think that an advanced civilisation might decide deliberately to recreate Auschwitz? Crazy!” Would contemporary advocates of running ancestor-simulations really create such horrors if they thought the payoff were big enough? Or have they simply not thought through their own positions?
One difficulty that I have with discussions of AI risk is the widespread assumption that phenomenally-bound subjects of experience are going to “emerge” at some level of computational abstraction in digital computers. Alas some very smart people don't recognise phenomenal binding as a problem at all. (cf. https://www.quora.com/Does-consciousness-serve-any-evolutionary-purpose-Is-it-even-necessary-for-biological-systems-to-work) Researchers who do recognise that phenomenal binding a problem for monistic physicalism assume that binding must have a classical explanation even if we can’t fathom it. But in my view, all suffering takes place in basement reality. All experience takes place in basement reality. Unfortunately, my views on the “quantum supremacy” of biological minds are idiosyncratic. (cf. What is quantum mind?) Until the scientific community comes to a consensus on digital sentience, s-risk from software run on digital computers must presumably count as real.
[on computer consciousness]
Will computer game characters ever be conscious?
What do you think of the panpsychist view that everything has an element of consciousness?
1. Terminology/jargon. When philosophers/philosophically-minded neuroscientists talk of the binding (or the combination) problem (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/intelligence-explosion/binding.pdf), they aren't alluding to the general mystery of how mental properties are bound to physical properties. Assume the Hard Problem is solved(!), i.e. assume that we know why, say, particular neurons in your striate cortex mediate the micro-experience of redness, as e.g. microelectrode studies suggest. A mystery still remains. How do such distributed neuronal feature-processors somehow generate unitary percepts? Thus when you undergo the experience of seeing a live black cat in front of your body-image, neuroscanning can pick out neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons and so forth. What neuroscanning doesn’t find is a unified cat percept. In other words, neuroscience can find hints of a structural match between mind and brain, but not the perfect structural match needed to vindicate physicalism and the unity of science. Dualism beckons.
2) "…some law that makes it possible for wet systems but not dry ones". My reason for noting a biological information-processing system like the (phenomenally unbound) enteric nervous system was to highlight that it’s not being wet or dry per se that explains the presence or absence of phenomenal binding. What exactly is this phenomenally bound state of the CNS called being "awake" or “dreaming" rather than dreamlessly asleep or comatose? Do general anaesthetics really extinguish consciousness - or just disrupt phenomenal binding? (cf. "Trapping of Syntaxin1a in Presynaptic Nanoclusters by a Clinically Relevant General Anesthetic": https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29320738) Neither classical nor quantum physics seem promising avenues of explanation - despite the (in)famous holism of QM. The individual superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors entailed by unitary-only QM are intuitively just psychotic “noise”- whether phenomenally bound noise or just noise. Their sub-femtosecond lifetimes makes them implausible candidates for the perfect structural match between mind and brain needed in order to avoid dualism. Maybe so. All I’m arguing is we should rule this out via interferometry rather than by intuition. Philosophising can only get us so far…
3) Like most scientifically educated people, I find the idea that the world's fundamental quantum fields are fields of insentience to be extremely plausible. Most scientists find the assumption so plausible they find no need to make the claim explicit. But this assumption is not consistent with the properties of the only quantum fields with which one is directly acquainted, i.e. the fields one’s mind instantiates. And the claim that physics is silent on the intrinsic nature of a quantum field – the “fire” in the equations - isn't some philosopher's flight of fancy, but acknowledged by hard-line "materialist" physicalists. Of course, most hard-line materialists also take it for granted that the essence of a field is non-experiential. They may well be correct! But this is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific discovery. And the assumption leads to dualism, which is just as incredible to some of us…
* * *
Testing? First, identify the neuronal feature-processors firing - the hint of the correlate that can be detected today. If phenomenally bound cat percepts in the CNS are really individual superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors, then the non-classical interference signature revealed by molecular matter-wave interferometry will “objectively” tell us. Just “noise”? Or a perfect structural match? Subjectively, it’s not like anything to be a mere classical synchrony of feature-processors - any more than it’s like anything to be a Mexican wave. My best guess is that the experience of phenomenally definite outcomes. e.g. a live cat, is possible only because the superposition principle never breaks down rather than because it does. True or false, sane or insane, this is an empirically testable claim rather than a philosophical opinion.
Derek, yes, as you say, a Schrodinger cat superposition decoheres long before any photons reach the eye. But whether you are awake or dreaming, physical processes in your retina are neither necessary nor sufficient for your experience of a subjectively classical-looking cat. The cat percept is internal to your visual cortex. Standard neuroscience would say that the cat percept is (somehow!) identical with distributed neuronal feature-processors synchronously firing. But it’s not subjectively like anything to be a classical aggregate. By contrast, perhaps ask: what’s it like to be individual coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors? A phenomenally-bound classical-looking cat, I suspect. Only the fact the superposition principle never breaks down allows us to simulate a subjectively classical world where it does.
Or alternatively, Chalmersian dualism is true in virtue of the “structural mismatch”.
Derek, I agree: if we make the extremely plausible assumption that the mathematical formalism of QFT describes fields of insentience, then invoking the superposition principle is not going to create experience ex nihilio. Yet among the minority of theorists who don't dismiss panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism as literally incredible, the binding/combination problem is usually accounted the biggest stumbling block. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then subjectively it must be likely something - psychotic or otherwise - to be a neuronal superposition because superpositions are individual states, not classical aggregates. Of course, there are plenty of people who find non-materialist physicalism to be simply insane. Galen Strawson calls the position "real materialism”, which is tactically wise.
So have we reached an impasse? Not really. Assuming physicalism, quantum mind theories that do and don’t invoke some breakdown of the unitary dynamics are all empirically falsifiable by interferometry. Intuitively, we'll find nothing but noise. But if we don't find a perfect structural match, then I’ll have no answer to Chalmersian dualism.
[as an aside, I did outline the conjectural solution a couple of years ago at Tucson. David Chalmers thought I was crazy. But hats off to Chalmers, he's thought about it some more:
DP on the combination problem
* * *
If non-materialist physicalism is true, then the non-separability of subsystem states is tantalising. Phenomenal binding is classically impossible. But this doesn’t prove dualism. A superposition isn’t a classical ensemble; it’s an individual state. Quantum mind critics such as Max Tegmark (“Why The Brain is Probably not a Quantum Computer”) and Maximilian Schlosshauer (“The quantum-to-classical transition and decoherence”) don’t dispute the theoretical existence of individual superpositions of neuronal feature-processors; rather, they argue the “dynamical timescale” (Tegmark) in the CNS is wrong: femtoseconds or less before ordering of the phase angles between the components of a system in a quantum superposition is effectively lost due to interactions with the environment. Commonsense says that phenomenally bound states (somehow) “emerge” on a timescale of milliseconds not femtoseconds. Well, maybe commonsense will be vindicated. I just have my doubts…
[on the foundations of quantum mechanics]
Interpretations of QM
Tim Maudlin #154 notes, “if you end up thinking you have to solve the mind-body problem to do physics you have probably taken a wrong turn somewhere”.
Quite so. Yet can researchers make progress on the correct interpretation of QM without taking a stance? “Obvious”, innocent-seeming implicit assumptions can be the most treacherous. Would you disagree with, e.g.
The measurement problem revisited
(“…the measurement problem in quantum mechanics is essentially the determinate-experience problem. The problem is to explain how the linear quantum dynamics can be compatible with the existence of our definite experience. This means that in order to finally solve the measurement problem it is necessary to analyze the observer who is physically in a superposition of brain states with definite measurement records.”)
So why do we have determinate experiences?
My ideas are quite odd (cf. Quantum mind).
But then what is orthodoxy?
Intuitively, all the options are crazy IMO.
Tim, when awake, does each of us:
(1) directly perceive a macroscopic physical world where laboratory apparatus has determinate pointer-readings, cats are manifestly alive or dead (but never alive-and-dead), and well-localised friends report on the health status of our pets?
(2) run a quasi-classical world-simulation, subjectively experienced just as (1), that tracks fitness-relevant patterns in the hypothetical mind-independent world?
I agree with you: contrived circumstances aside, neither the perceptual direct realist (1) nor the world-simulationist / inferential realist about perception (2) talks explicitly about their experiences of laboratory apparatus, solid balls rolling down inclined planes (etc). But whether (1) or (2) is true is highly relevant to the correct interpretation of QM. Only if (1) is true can the mind-body problem be quarantined from the interpretation of QM, as you propose.
[For what it’s worth, IMO perceptual direct realism is false. Only the universal validity of the superposition principle allows the CNS to run a robustly classical-seeming world-simulation. But the theoretical sub-femtosecond lifetime of neuronal superpositions assuming unitary-only QM makes this view far-fetched, to say the least.]
* * *
Even though IMO the Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR
theory is mistaken, I respect Orch-OR because it’s empirically falsifiable.
Either way, no one sympathetic to phasing out the biology of suffering should feel the need to sign up to my (or Penrose and Hameroff’s!) ideas on quantum mind. This isn’t to say theories of consciousness are ethically irrelevant. For instance, I discount digital sentience. By contrast, an abolitionist who believes classical digital computer can support subjects of experience
(cf. Are video game characters sentient?) will have a very different conception of the future of the abolitionist project. The problem with Orch-OR isn’t that it’s quantum, but rather it’s semi-classical.
There’s no evidence that unitarity is violated in the CNS or anywhere else.
One principle to rule them all?
DP in a nutshell
The symbol grounding problem
Yes, in my wild misspent youth, I used to worry that the functional account of reference below still illicitly presupposed the “magical” non-physicalist conception of reference it was designed to avoid...
[on the justification of pain and pleasure]
Ultimately, do states on the pleasure-pain axis need to be justified, somehow, by anything external to themselves? Suffering, e.g physical pain, is self-intimatingly bad even if has no external correlate. Is bliss different? If we do create a world of self-intimatingly good experience, won’t such well-being somehow obscene, or at least inappropriate, given suffering elsewhere? As a NU (notional) button-presser, I share the intuition. But polluting posthuman bliss with an understanding of distant suffering that even posthuman superintelligence is impotent to change would be wrong according to the lights of NU: it would entail adding to the suffering of reality to no purpose.
I share PF Strawson’s intuition. However, you may recall my account of meaning and reference from HI, in a nutshell:
In the final analysis, well-being no more calls for justification than sneezing. But as long as the simulacrum of “magical” reference exists, and one can prevent or mitigate suffering elsewhere, then yes, there is something indecent about partying the night away. And if one can’t do anything about it, there still intuitively seems something indecent too - assuming semantic realism.
by physicist Sean Carroll.
I don’t know either. But I explore an informationless zero ontology:
Why Does The Universe Exist? What would inexistence entail? Dirac stressed the superposition principle was the fundamental principle of QM. Maybe the superposition principle is the key to explaining why anything exists at all. Everettian QM is the only theory consistent with the information content of reality being equal to zero: the quantum analogue of the Library of Babel. Naively, we might imagine countless alternative laws or principles by which reality could have been organised. All of them, overtly or covertly, involve the creation of information ex nihilo. By contrast, unitary-only QM tells us that whenever one naively supposes that information has been created, e.g. “Behold, a live cat”, then it's really illusory (cf. Wigner’s friend). What critics of the Everettian multiverse view as a vice can instead be construed as a theoretical virtue: no-collapse QM is the only theory consistent with an informationless zero ontology. “A theory that explains everything, explains nothing”, said Karl Popper. Yes, precisely.
Of course, one wants to protest here that by "nothing", I don't have in mind a perfect complex sphere of Hilbert space. But maybe one's pre-theoretic conception of "nothing" is both too rich (in virtue of its disguised information content) and also too impoverished, i.e. we don’t grasp what the default state of zero information entails. Unitary-only QM tells us that information can never be created or destroyed. Maybe timeless Everettian QM tells us information was never created in the first place. Max Tegmark once wrote a paper “Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?” Should we drop the “almost”? I don’t know.
* * *
Conceivably, yes, a particle accelerator is one possible explanation of this catastrophic accident
although the superposition principle of timeless Everettian QM
is my candidate for the heart of the mystery.
Why does existence exist?
The Meta-Problem of Consciousness by David Chalmers
The Hard Problem of consciousness arises only if we make a plausible metaphysical assumption. Our best mathematical description of the physical world, namely quantum field theory, describes fields of insentience rather than sentience. If we drop the metaphysical assumption, then there is no Hard Problem: misnamed p-zombies are unphysical. Only the physical is real. Monistic physicalism is true. As a bonus, non-materialist physicalism also potentially solves (1) the combination problem (maybe wavefunction monists face instead the phenomenal unbinding problem); and (2) the palette problem (the diverse values of the solutions to the equations of QFT are conventionally infinite); and also (3) the problem of causal efficacy (all and only the physical has causal power; consciousness is the essence of the physical).
So why are many educated people so sure that the intrinsic nature of the physical - the "fire" in the equations - is non-experiential? Why suppose our minds are ontologically special?
Partly, I guess, because the alternative reeks of animism and New-Age mumbo-jumbo; partly because non-materialist physicalism is confused with anti-realism; partly because we still tend to imagine e.g. electrons as classical point-particles; and partly because a lot of people are implicitly perceptual direct realists even if they'd disavow the label. If you believe that you enjoy direct perceptual access to the mind-independent world, as distinct from a real-time world-simulation run by your CNS, then you’ll reckon that you have some conceptual handle on extra-cranial reality - even though physics itself is silent on the intrinsic nature of the "fire". If anything, the ball is on the other foot. Insofar we do have a pre-theoretic handle on the intrinsic nature of reality, then (as Schopenhauer recognised) our phenomenal minds disclose the essence of the physical is experiential.
Whatever the explanation, we are unlikely to make progress by exchanging our intuitions of (im)plausibility. The proposal that the formalism of QFT objectively describes fields of experience strikes me as almost as wildly and ridiculously implausible as you probably find it too. The good news is that unlike traditional panpsychism, non-materialist physicalism is experimentally falsifiable via molecular matter-wave interferometry. IMO, only the empirically demonstrable fact that the superposition principle of QM never breaks down enables each of us phenomenally to simulate a robustly classical-seeming world where it does. The superposition principle infects literally everything, at least assuming unmodified and unsupplemented QM. Perhaps contrast such theoretical conservatism with David's bold e.g. http://consc.net/slides/collapse.pdf (“Consciousness and the Collapse of the Wave Function”). I assume unitary-only QM: no new principle of physics.
Once again, anyone scientifically familiar with the raw power of decoherence in the warm CNS will probably roll their eyes here. The quantum-theoretic version of the “intrinsic properties” argument for non-materialist physicalism is insanely far-fetched. Yet at least as far-fetched as non-materialist physicalism is the alternative, dualism - our fate if the ostensible "structural mismatch" between mind and our representations of the brain proves unbridgeable. The dualist says the phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors into perceptual objects is classically impossible. As standardly posed, the binding / combination problem presupposes an "awake" CNS consists of decohered classical neurons. Yet why expect a false theory, i.e. classical physics, will yield a true account of mind? Either way, these are testable conjectures that interferometry will refute or confirm. The non-classical interference signature either will or won't disclose a perfect structural match between our phenomenally-bound minds and (ultimately) the formalism of physics. My tentative prediction is that temporally fine-grained neuroscanning will decipher a perfect structural match. Science will move on. Brains as conceived today are artefacts of mind and the phenomenal world-simulations they run. The Hard Problem of materialist metaphysics will go the way of luminiferous aether.
The risk of microdosing on LSD
is that success easily leads to macro-dosing. And contra e.g.
a full-on LSD trip rarely resembles a controllable lucid dream.
Anaesthesia: do anaesthetics destroy consciousness or just phenomenal binding?
("Scientists Just Changed Our Understanding of How Anaesthesia Messes With The Brain")
* * *
“The path to paradise begins in hell."
This video struck a chord...
The End of Suffering
1) Should the Transhumanist Declaration be modified to exclude the interests of sentient beings - human and nonhuman - who fail to meet some threshold of intelligence? In my view, this would be a backward step. I know of no reason to believe that intelligence is inherently valuable except insofar as it serves the interests of sentient beings - intelligent or otherwise.
2) An insentient information processor (including a universal Turing machine notionally constructed as Turing envisaged) could not subjectively understand suffering. But I'm curious about what functional roles or problem-solving tasks you believe that the "raw feels" of experience below hedonic zero are computationally indispensable.
3) The proposal that building superintelligence should have overriding ethical priority is different from the claim that we should conserve the biology of involuntary suffering - at least for beings below a threshold of intelligence. Indeed, one aspect of full-spectrum superintelligence is presumably a superhuman capacity for perspective-taking - including the perspective of cognitively humble beings who lack the capacity to churn out logico-linguistic inferences. Either way, I'm puzzled why you believe that phasing out involuntary suffering is more “dangerous”, as you put it, than its conservation. True, the world may not have many button-pressing negative utilitarians. Yet how many of the million or so people who take their own lives each year would take the rest of the world down with them if they could? Other things being equal, the more that intelligent agents love life, the more motivated they are to preserve it. Non-coincidentally, all the folk I know working in the field of existential risk have unusually high hedonic set-points. Let's use biotech wisely to ensure that such well-being is universally shared.
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David Pearce (2018)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-18
Social Network Postings (2018)