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.
[on personal idenity]
Do you have an enduring metaphysical ego or just a social security number?
Was Parfit correct about consciousness and how we're not the same person that we were when we were born?
The lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS makes my own conception of enduring personal identity quite thin.
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.
* * *
"Who is the most powerful transhumanist in 2018?"
Intellectually, ethically, or politically? Chimpanzees on the African savannah spend much of their lives competing for power, status, attention, and reproductive opportunities (cf. Power and Sex among Apes by Frans de Waal). Squabbles, intrigues, rivalries and shifting alliances are endemic. Males are dominant, but females can still exert substantial power. Likewise, humans are “Machiavellian apes” with many characteristics of a chimpanzee troop with WMD. Transhumanists too are human – all too human – though we don’t normally bear arms.
In aspiration, however, transhumanists are different. Transhumanists seek to transcend our biological limitations and leave the African savannah behind. In principle, rational agents can use science and technology to create a civilisation of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness – a glorious posthuman world where all sentient beings can flourish (cf. Life in the Year 3000).
But how to get there?
Futurists tend to be skimpy on the details. Real-life politics is always sordid. “Politics is the mindkiller”, Eliezer Yudkowsky observes. Alas, the price of purity is impotence. Hence the growth of transhumanist politics. Some transhumanists have suggested that government by AI would be an improvement over human politicians (cf. Could Governments Run By Artificial Intelligence Be A Good Thing?), though an AGI with the utility function of classical utilitarianism might be inconsistent with human survival. Inevitably, the majority of well-known transhumanists are American alpha males (cf. Transhumanists by nationality - Wikipedia). On that incomplete list, I’d guess Ray Kurzweil(?) is most influential transhumanist in 2018.
Will posthuman superintelligence resemble a benevolent Kurzweilian fusion of humans and intelligent machines? Or should we fear an uncontrolled “intelligence explosion” of recursively self-improving software-based AI? Or will humanity’s successors be our AI-enhanced biological descendants? My own view of life is dark and suffering-focused. But power and influence typically belong to optimistic life lovers, not negative utilitarians.
Kant, Transcendental Idealism and the Binding Problem
Thanks Curt. This will sound strange, but I think the biggest obstacle to experimental resolution is philosophical. If the scientific community accepted that phenomenal binding is classically impossible, and the only alternative to a no-collapse quantum mind solution is Chalmersian dualism, then a cleaner, simpler and more elegant experimental refutation of a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture will surely be possible than the protocol of the interferometry experiment outlined. However, the idea that what we're calling synchrony is really superposition strikes most competent scientists as just so "weird" that few investigators are seriously going to turn their minds to how best to test it. Decoherence in the CNS is so powerful they’ll instead just reflexively dismiss the conjecture as wildly implausible - which it is! Apparently, someone forwarded my original paper to Anton Zeilinger in Vienna. His response was that “quantum mechanics has nothing to do with consciousness”.
I guess I could energetically promote the idea. But I’m simply curious, not zealous.
Utilitarians, and indeed anyone who favours suffering-focused ethics, would seem obliged to support eugenics. “Eugenics” is not a pretty word. But rewriting our genetic source code is the only way to get rid of suffering: Is eugenics moral?
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 compassionate conservation]
Vegan Transhumanists Oppose Conservation
What is the optimal level of suffering in the living world? What kinds of involuntary suffering (starvation, predation, parasitic disease, etc) should intelligent moral agents aim to conserve or promote in members of other species or ethnic groups? For better or worse, the entire biosphere is now programmable. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution and synthetic gene drives turn the level of suffering in Nature into an adjustable parameter. You don't need to be a negative utilitarian or a Buddhist to believe that reducing the burden of suffering across the tree of life is ethically desirable. For sure, talk of humans systematically helping other sentient beings when our species is systematically harming them in factory-farms and slaughterhouses feels surreal. However, the in vitro meat revolution means that later this century the death factories are likely to be shut and outlawed. So what should be our long-term goal for free-living nonhuman animals?
As an advocate of compassionate conservation, I'll briefly respond to your points as follows. (Sorry I can’t do them justice here, but I’ll add some links.)
1) Predators? Why condemn human predators who prey on the weak, the young, the sick and the vulnerable, but celebrate predatory "charismatic mega-fauna” who violently molest their non-human counterparts? Do we want to perpetuate a living world where sentient beings hurt and kill each other? If so, why? (cf. How do vegans feel about wild animals who kill other wild animals?)
2) Population regulation? The civilised solution to human overpopulation isn’t starvation or Malthusian catastrophe but family planning. Free-living nonhumans can't practise fertility-regulation via family planning. But their caregivers in tomorrow's wildlife parks can ensure ecologically sustainable population sizes via cross-species immunocontraception. A huge amount of pointless and horrific suffering will be avoided (cf. Why don't animal rights activists care more about wild animal suffering?).
3) Physical pain? What default setting of pain-sensitivity is optimal? Is spreading a benign version of its volume-knob (cf. A Cure for Pain) really so terrible - in humans and nonhumans alike? (cf. Gene-drives.com)
4) Anthropocentric? Exotic complications aside (extreme BDSM, sexual cannibalism in spiders, etc), no sentient being wants to be harmed - to starve, to be disembowelled, or eaten alive. Protecting the interests of all sentient beings is the opposite of anthropocentric. The pleasure-pain axis is common to all sentient beings. Yes, compassionate stewardship of Nature is paternalist. But just as you'd rescue a drowning human toddler, what’s morally wrong with rescuing free-living beings of comparable sentience and sapience rather than leaving them to their fate?
5. Western moral values? A concern for the well-being of all sentience isn't the prerogative of affluent vegan white Westerners. Consider e.g. Jains or Buddhists. Biotech is potentially a more effective intervention than, say, sweeping the ground beneath one’s feet. But this is a question of technology, not core values.
6. Unquantifiable suffering? Comparative intensity of suffering isn't arbitrary and subjective. Levels of both well-being and suffering can be “operationalized”, as behavioural psychologists would say, by investigating how hard a human or nonhuman animal will work to obtain or avoid a given stimulus. The results of behavioural, genetic, neurobiological and pharmacological studies tend to converge. Yes, there are all sorts of methodological complications. But IMO the complications are no reason to avoid mitigating, minimising and eventually abolishing involuntary suffering throughout the living world. The biology of suffering should be treated as an impenetrable metaphysical mystery.
You ask us to remember the lessons of history ("It reminds me of policies taken in the past to prevent suffering in human societies, which proved disastrous"). But what exactly are those lessons? Should we shun trying to help reduce suffering in members of other societies and ethnic groups for fear of unknown consequences? Or we should aim to help sentient beings more wisely – regardless of race or species?
* * *
("Habitat Loss, Not Preservation, Generally Reduces Wild-Animal Suffering")
Habitat destruction could indeed end suffering in human and nonhuman animals alike. In my view, civilising Nature is a more sociologically promising policy-option. Most people favour habitat conservation and less suffering in the world. Compassionate conservation offers the advantages of both.
Aggressive herbivores? In the long run, delinquent herbivores can be genetically-behaviourally tweaked too. In tomorrow's wildlife parks, the worst forms of suffering and extreme violence will presumably be tackled first. But we're not going to run out of computational resources to deal with lesser dramas. Ultimately, it’s going to be an ethical choice how much suffering intelligent moral agents opt to perpetuate or phase out.
Ending suffering via mass sterilisation? Well, if Anopheles mosquitoes are engineered to go extinct in the wild, would the world be a worse place? Selection pressure means that ending suffering in humans won't be achieved via radical antinatalism, but I know of no technical reason why the biology of involuntary suffering can't be retired (cf. https://www.abolitionist.com/). Likewise with nonhuman animals. Reform will just take time.
The civilising process? No one is blaming a nonhuman animal who asphyxiates, disembowels or eats alive his victims. Predators don't understand the implications of what they are doing. But ending such horrors will benefit members of formerly "predator" and "prey" species alike. Civilisation will be invitrotarian or vegan. Sentient beings don’t need to harm each other.
[on veganism and abortion]
Are you pro-life?
[on plant sentience]
Plants (and philosophers) are normally sessile; but are they sentient?
Could plants be 'philosophical zombies'?
Perhaps see The Binding Problem
[on the multiverse]
The multiverse scares me, as does the Library of Babel, because hell has always loomed larger in my imagination than heaven.
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/dont-be-afraid-of-the-multiverse/559169/">Don't Be Afraid of the Multiverse"
("Rumors of science's demise have been greatly exaggerated")
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
But is "star-stuff" what it seems?
Are particles conscious?
[on existential risk]
Should we be worried?
"If all the ants in the world suddenly became as intelligent as humans and were hell bent on world domination, could they eliminate the human race in a coordinated attack?"
"We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, & treated our distant cousins in fur & feathers so badly that...if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form."
(William Ralph Inge)
Summoning the demon?
Do you believe that Musk, Hawking, etc. are wrong to fear self-aware AI?
[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…
* * *
Does your mind extend beyond the confines of your skull?
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/02/the-mind-expanding-ideas-of-andy-clark">The mind-expanding ideas of Andy Clark
Or is your macroscopic world a skull-bound simulation run by your mind...
What is the difference between perception and consciousness?
* * *
Mangus Vinding, author of the Effective Altruism handbook, on our ontological commitments:
Panpsychism vs non-materialist phyicalism
Does the mathematical machinery of quantum field theory describe fields of sentience or insentience? I don't know. The "obvious" answer leads to the Hard Problem, the binding problem, the palette roblem, the problem of causal efficacy, and a Pandora's box of mysteries that science is impotent to solve. Tricky.
[on suffering and radical anti-natalism]
Why David Pearce is wrong about Antinatalism (video)
First, many thanks to Vegan Antinatalist for a very fair-minded video - and some astute comments below. I promise that my view of Darwinian life on Earth is (if anything) darker than most radical antinatalists (cf. What are you thoughts on antinatalism?). So let's here focus on the purely technical question. Is the most effective way to minimise / prevent / abolish suffering (1) human extinction via radical antinatalism? Or (2) genetically reprogramming the biosphere?
Clearly, there is no gene "for" natalism or antinatalism - any more than there is a gene "for" belief in God (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_gene). But this isn't what the Argument From Selection Pressure against radical antinatalism claims. There are fitness-enhancing genes / allelic combinations that predispose to e.g. religiosity and hence natalism.
("God's little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide")).
Of course, not all religious traditions claim that we have a duty to "go forth and multiply". Yet compare the fate of celibate religious communities like the Shakers with the mass breeders. (cf. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/us/sister-frances-ann-carr-one-of-the-last-three-shakers-dies-at-89.html
I try to say a bit more on antinatalism e.g. here:
Antinatalism / Efilism
("What are the main differences between the anti-natalism / efilism community and the negative utilitarian / "suffering-focused ethics” wing of the effective altruism community?")
What are the Arguments Against Antinatalism?
In short, I’d urge everyone not to bring more suffering into the world. But if you are determined to have children, then you can at least load the genetic dice in their favour.
* * *
Life Sucks, I can't speak for all transhumanists, but I try to answer your point on the Meaning of Life here:
Jordan Peterson on meaning versus suffering-relief
No one says, "I feel blissfully happy but my life feels meaningless".
Biotechnology can make life feel profoundly meaningful - more super-charged with a sense of significance than anything physiologically feasible today.
Hegasis, yes, weighing risk-reward ratios is vital. If today's hedonic range is (schematically) -10 to 0 to +10, then biotechnology could create a civilisation with a hedonic range of, say, + 70 to + 100. However, truly dreadful scenarios are also technically feasible. Life could also be created with a hedonic range of, say, -70 to -100. I'd argue that this vile prospect is sociologically fanciful. But a critic could respond that bioscientists already breed strains of ultra-depressive (and also "depression-resistant") rodents for the purposes of medical research. So who knows? Considering "worst case" scenarios is ethically mandatory: s-risk.
Unlike you, I'm sceptical of digital sentience. In my view, the conjecture that phenomenally-bound subjects of experience can "emerge" at different labels of computational abstraction is misplaced. Classical digital computers will always be zombies (cf. Will we create conscious video game characters?).
Yet what if this analysis is mistaken? Some very smart people argue that digital computers will one day ”wake up” or support sentient “mind uploads”. Getting our theory of mind wrong could be ethically catastrophic.
* * *
Vegan Antinatalist, thank you. However...
a) The majority of suffering in the world is undergone by non-human animals. Much of this suffering is of course caused by humans. But humans are also the only species intellectually capable of bringing their suffering to an end. Let’s agree we should first shut and outlaw the death factories. Yet what should be done afterwards about the terrible suffering of free-living non-humans? 1) Conserve the status quo? 2) Build a Doomsday device? (3) Non-violent pan-species extinction via mass sterilisation? 4) Genetic rewrites via e.g. CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives? (cf. https://www.gene-drives.com/)
Any proposed solution must not just be technically feasible, but also sociologically credible later this century and beyond. I favour (4) rather than (3), even though reprogramming the biosphere is technically the most challenging option, because most people are (and will almost certainly remain) outraged at any proposal to retire “charismatic megafauna”.
b) Involuntary sterilisation is not an ethically viable option for humans. So how should the radical anti-natalist behave who wants to end suffering but accepts the argument from selection pressure against "extinctionist" anti-natalism? I could have gone into far more detail about how selection pressure in favour of "broodiness" (cf. https://families.media/broodiness-the-need-to-conceive, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/fatherhood/9968649/Real-men-are-just-as-broody-as-women.html, etc) will intensify as the imminent reproductive revolution of “designer babies” unfolds. You are quite right to question the gung-ho optimism of some transhumanists who believe that "superintelligence" will solve all our problems. Unlike physical pain, there is no single genetic "volume knob” for mental distress (cf. https://www.wired.com/2017/04/the-cure-for-pain/). The thought of trying to persuade all prospective parents world-wide-wide to accept preimplantation genetic screening and counselling is daunting – even if the genetic expertise currently existed to guarantee mental superhealth, which it doesn't. But even more daunting IMO is the thought of persuading everyone not to breed. I can just-about foresee a time when everyone believes that a genetic crapshoot is irresponsible and therefore wants to preselect genes/alleles predisposing to happy babies. I can't foresee a time where everyone wants no babies. Indeed, only genetic-biological interventions could ever abolish a predisposition to “broodiness”.
Maybe you’d argue that my own puny efforts would be better directed at banging the drum for antinatalism rather than exploring ambitious genetic-biological fixes for suffering. But unless/until a radical anti-natalist convinces me that the argument from selection pressure can be debunked, I'll probably carry on as now - futile as such transhumanist techno-utopianism might seem.
No contest IMO...
Coffee vs cannabis
("Why Coffee Could Be the Opposite of Cannabis")
[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
* * *
Do you believe that suffering is worthwhile?
“One person’s heaven is another person’s hell”? Yes and no. Humans find a diversity of environments hellish or heavenly, but everyone enjoys having their twin “hedonic hotspots” activated. The genetic-biological pathways of pleasure and pain are strongly evolutionarily conserved in the vertebrate line and beyond. Likewise, having a high average hedonic set-point consistently confers a higher default subjective quality of life than having a low hedonic set-point.
One virtue of urging hedonic recalibration is precisely that one isn’t (arrogantly?) trying to impose one’s own values and preferences on others, merely advertise the potential opportunity to enhance everyone’s default quality of life. The exception/complication to this claimed humility is if one of their core values/preferences is to keep their hedonic set-point unchanged. But recall I’m not urging coercive hedonic enhancement / recalibration – simply promoting the option.
Once again, there are complications even here. Unborn children can’t choose their hedonic set-points. Fortunately, most parents would prefer to have happy kids.
[on perception versus world-simulationism]
The Grand Illusion
("A psychonautical odyssey into the depths of human experience" by Steve Lehar)
From Kant (“Thus the existence of a real object outside me is never given directly in perception, but can only be added in thought to what is a modification of inner sense as its external cause, and hence can only be inferred.” - Critique of Pure Reason) to poet Emily Dickinson ("The brain is wider than the sky...") the idea that everything one perceives plays out inside one's transcendental skull takes a bit of getting used to - not least, the fact that one's nearest and dearest are just the zombie avatars of virtual worlds playing out elsewhere.
[on cognitive dissonance]
How common is it for people to experience cognitive dissonance after reading DP?
Thanks Alex. For another possible source of cognitive dissonance, consider your cool big cat Quora ID picture. Many animal lovers celebrate the existence of both lions and giraffes. Alas promoting the well-being of one entails harming the other (cf. https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/lion-conservation-challenges-giraffe-protection/) If we are sensitive to cognitive dissonance, then such tension can in future be resolved: Reprogramming Predators. As a species, will humans be compassionate and hard-headed enough to do what compassionate conservation entails?
The symbol grounding problem
Yes, in my wild misspent youth, I used to worry that the functional account of reference above still illicitly presupposed the “magical” non-physicalist conception of reference it was designed to avoid...
[on causal efficacy]
Thanks Eric, first, yes, many scientists would agree with you that "All information in the brain ultimately derives from sensory input, which is turned into neurally-encoded information by reasonably well-understood mechanisms." But IMO this proposal is false. Sensory inputs are neither necessary nor sufficient for the contents of your mind and its world-simulation - as e.g. our dreams and microelectrode studies attest. Peripheral sensory inputs sometimes partially select the contents of our minds; they never create content. Most of the time it’s useful to suppose otherwise.
Secondly, yes, the traditional mind-brain identity theory has the problems you mention: it’s not strictly epiphenomenalist, but the subjective aspect of the mind-brain is causally redundant. But according to non-materialist physicalism, experience is the essence of the physical. All and only the physical has causal efficacy. QFT is about fields of experience:
Through what mechanism could consciousness be causally effective?
Do you think consciousness is physical or non-physical? How about causally potent or impotent?
Galen Strawson, if I understand him correctly, argues something similar.
[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. (cf. Nozick's Experience Machine). 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.
[on artificial intelligence]
AI: the dawn of posthuman superintelligence...
("One machine to rule them all: A ‘Master Algorithm’ may emerge sooner than you think")
Alternatively, digital computers are as sentient as an abacus and not even stupid:
Would superintelligent AI be conscious
& What are some philosophical arguments against the possibility of conscious machines?
Should the substrates of pleasure be rationed?
("Conventional view of opioid mechanism of action upended in new study")
“Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?”
by physicist Sean Carroll.
I don’t know either. But I explore an informationless zero ontology:
Why Does The Universe Exist?
Is "nothing" really possible?
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.
Why is existence so complex?
* * *
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?
[on happiness and the problem of evil]
Could life based on gradients of superhuman bliss really be “boring”?
Freeman Dyson's Solution to the Problem of Evil
("Dyson’s principle of maximum diversity says that without hardship and suffering, life would be too dull")
What if you do not like Heaven?
Do your sympathies lie with Bishop Berkeley or Dr Johnson?
Why is consciousness hard to perceive in spite of it being certain?
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.
* * *
If non-materialist physicalism is true, there is no problem of causal efficacy - "redundant" or otherwise. All consciousness, and only consciousness, has causal efficacy: it’s the essence of the physical, the "fire" in the equations of QFT. Whether a nonbiological robot designed to implement the function of nociception has a CPU of silicon or gallium arsenide (etc) is nonetheless incidental. Silicon / gallium arsenide (etc) microprocessors are not unitary subjects of experience: the (hypothetical) decohered micro-qualia of their components are mere implementation details. Contrast awake biological nervous systems. The challenge, then, is to explain how nonpsychotic phenomenal binding is physically possible in the CNS even if non-materialist physicalism is true. A structural mismatch entails dualism, as David Chalmers recognises.
I investigate the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic properties argument for non-materialist physicalism. Assume the unitary-only Schrödinger dynamics. There is no phenomenal binding problem because superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors are individual states, not classical aggregates. In other words, I don't propose any new principle of physics, just explore what is intuitively the reductio ad absurdum of existing physics. Credible decoherence times of neuronal superpositions in the CNS are femtoseconds or less.
One of the truly bad arguments is this field is, "I find your position […] extremely far-fetched". Let's take implausibility as read. The true answer to the Hard Problem of consciousness and its tangle of offshoots will almost certainly be wildly implausible if not incomprehensible. Instead, let’s focus on falsifying the handful of existing conjectures that are “not even wrong”. More specifically here, if neuronal synchrony is really superposition, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us.
Maybe I’m wasting time on an implausible loophole to be closed, not investigating a “sensible” option, whatever that might be. But the alternative, i.e. Chalmersian dualism, is dire.
Eric, thanks, yes, first a point of clarification before tackling your main worry. On the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic properties argument for non-materialist physicalism I explore, it’s not that individual subfemtosecond neuronal superpositions “give rise to” experience. Rather, such neuronal superpositions are experience - most critically here, phenomenally-bound experience.
This clarification doesn’t address your main criticism, at least if I understand it correctly. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then the solutions to the equations of QFT yield the values of qualia: no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of physics (let’s ignore stringy complications). Yet why do our countless textures of experience take the values they do? To establish “nothing is missing” from the mathematical formalism is progress of sorts, but still feels lame in the absence of some kind of cosmic Rosetta stone to “read off” the textures of experience from the solutions to the equations. If this is your point, then I have to agree. As you say, all we seem to get is a bunch of arbitrary-seeming correlations, mostly still unknown.
My guess for where the explanation-space of an answer will be found lies in the informationless zero ontology I explore in:
https://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-universe-exist-Why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/answers/14473029">Why does the universe exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?
But unlike the nonclassical account I offer of phenomenal binding, I haven’t been able to think of any falsifiable predictions that follow from such speculation.
* * *
The Predictive Mind
Predictive coding theory is interesting. “The PEM framework turns the above approach on its head. According to PEM, the brain first constructs coherent hypotheses that bind relevant features.” But how? While dreaming, the CNS constructs perceptual objects and a phenomenal world-simulation in the absence of peripheral inputs. During waking consciousness, peripheral inputs powerfully select (but don’t create) such perceptual objects and the contents of our phenomenal world-simulations. Even if feature-processing neurons have rudimentary consciousness, we still haven’t explained why we aren’t micro-experiential zombies…
Andrés Gómez Emilsson of Qualia Computing reports on the "Science of Consciousness" conference, Tucson 2018:
Qualia Formalism in the Water Supply
What date was the world's first experience?
Can consciousness be modelled mathematically
* * *
Science doesn’t know why #consciousness exists or how it exerts the causal power to ask questions about its nature. Science can’t explain the rich variety of consciousness or classically impossible phenomenal binding. Our ignorance is hard to overstate. Christof Koch would be to differ...
What Is Consciousness?
("Scientists are beginning to unravel a mystery that has long vexed philosophers.") Wavefunctions, particles, fields, superstrings, braines...psychons??
Is physics on the brink of a revolution?
"Sentient Robots, Conscious Spoons and Other Cheerful Follies"
My view? See e.g.
Consciousness and QM
Are any theories of consciousness falsifiable
What is really “hard” about “the hard problem of consciousness”
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.
Sleep in total darkness improves mood and promotes mental health.
("Being Exposed to Even a Small Amount of Light During Sleep is Linked to Depression")
Defeating the biology of aging will take decades, perhaps centuries. Should we introduce opt-out cryonics and opt-in cryothanasia? Despite my dark views on Darwinian life, I signed up with Alcor this month:
DP and cryonics
("Are 'cryonic technicians' the key to immortality?")
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.
* * *
("CRISPR: Emerging applications for genome editing technology")
Would published books be better without editors and proofreaders? Children born today are unique and untested genetic experiments. CRISPR gene-editing poses risks. The same question can be asked in computer science and sexual reproduction. Is unedited code likely to be best?
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David Pearce (2018)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-18
Social Network Postings (2018)