JANUARY 2019 -
[on the odds of HI]
I foresee a future of pain, suffering and nuclear war. But we’re going to reprogram the biosphere. There’s maybe a 50-50 chance the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur later this millennium...
Life in the Year 3000
[on predators and universal veganism]
“Flesh eating is unprovoked murder.”
A rant against vegans in Le Monde. Should an ethic of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” be restricted to one race or species?
Paul Ariès accuse les végans de mentir sciemment & J’accuse
(partly hidden behind a paywall; the full text is here).
"J’accuse?" The vision of a non-violent living world where all sentient beings can flourish unmolested is Biblical; only the technical details are modern.
Le Monde has mixed feelings about transhumanism too:
La résistible ascension du transhumanisme
Perhaps also see:
Interventionnisme et faune sauvage
Starvation, violence and terror are no way to run a biosphere:
Are we obligated to help wild creatures?
Kevin Esvelt isn't some madcap transhumanist, but one of the pioneers of CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives:
Talk of gene-editing, and even cross-species fertility-regulation, makes a lot of animal activists uncomfortable. But most of the "obvious”, compassionate, non-biological-genetic interventions we can imagine designed to help free-living creatures are either ineffective or would make the problem of wild-animal suffering worse (by triggering population explosions of predators and/or their victims).
Most humans are more sentient than most nonhumans. So one needn't be speciesist (in the arbitrary sense) to agree. My commonsense chronology has always been humans first, then large vertebrates, last of all small obscure invertebrates. But what's disconcerting about CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives is that (in theory) they can invert our intuitive chronology. Small fast-breeders are actually the easiest and cheapest to help. In theory, humans could be the last species in which suffering is eradicated, owing to issues of consent. If some humans always insist on having kids "naturally", involuntary suffering will persist indefinitely. No, I don't think this inverted chronology is likely, but there are too many unknowns to exclude it altogether.
Cruel World or Human Nature? (The Ecologist)
Rationalising human and nonhuman) animal suffering that we can't change is good. Telling ourselves that suffering is not really so terrible – and the cruelties of Nature serve some sort of purpose - helps keep one sane. However, the ethical risk of rationalising human and nonhuman suffering now is that any kind of feel-good story stops humanity from recognising our complicity in its persistence. We are living in the final century where suffering is technically inevitable. The same tools of gene-editing that e.g. WIRED magazine recognises could be used to abolish or trivialise human pain (cf. https://www.wired.com/story/crispr-gene-editing-could-one-day-cut-away-human-pain/) could be extended across the animal kingdom. Unintuitvely, CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives (cf. gene-drives.com) make wild-animal suffering potentially easier to tackle than human suffering. The whole biosphere is programmable - and that includes the optimal levels of physical and mental pain.
Should we conserve violence, suffering and terror or civilise the biosphere with CRISPR?
("Can a Dolphin Really Commit Rape?)
Suffering and Enlightenment
Agony and a pinprick have something in common: they are both nasty. Nonetheless, it would be fanciful to describe a pinprick as suffering. The actual threshold above which pain becomes suffering is conventional, though not arbitrary. The distinction between pain and suffering has practical advantages too. Getting rid of all experience below "hedonic zero" is a more technically ambitious and a longer-term goal than making pain nothing more than a useful signalling mechanism - as a few human genetic outliers describe their nociceptive systems today.
Wild animal suffering?
I hope you are right to be sceptical, Alexander. Until we can engineer e.g. reversible thalamic bridges or come up with a truly scientific theory of consciousness, the sentience of anyone - human or nonhuman - is speculative. However, both the neocortex and limbic system of some nonhuman animals are bigger than their human counterparts. Genes, neurological structures and behavioural responses to noxious stimuli are strongly conserved across the vertebrate line and beyond. I suspect being eaten alive, for instance, is just as unspeakably awful if you are a juvenile elephant or a human toddler. Alas, we need to reprogram the biosphere, not focus exclusively on a single species.
AGI and Suffering
If machine intelligence doesn't understand pleasure & pain, can it be a moral superpower? Or is sentience the secret sauce that distinguishes full-spectrum superintelligence from digital idiots-savants?
IMO, sentient moral agents will civilise Nature:
A Happy Biosphere
If Nazca boobies ever mastered language and tool use, then siblicide would presumably seem a sacred obligation at the core of their values, just like its human analogues. Most humans aware of the phenomenon find siblicide disturbing. But our cousins on human dinner plates meet an equally grisly fate. We’re no better.
[on happy, pain-free CRISPR babies]
“Ending Suffering” Should Be the #1 Transhumanist Priority
Is the problem of suffering genetically soluble this century? For example, could two tiny genetic tweaks get rid of most of the world’s mental and physical pain? (cf. CRISPR gene editing to prevent pain) Compare how Jo Cameron’s unusually high levels of anandamide (from the Sanskrit for “bliss") induces lifelong mild euphoria without impairing critical insight or social responsibility. With CRISPR and preimplantation genetic screening, all babies could be innately happy.
In the video, Jo Cameron comes across as sharp, incisive and articulate - more so than most people in their early seventies. I wonder if her cognitive health is related to the reported neuroprotective effects of anandamide? In another article, Jo reports always having been forgetful. Perhaps this is because anxiety (which she lacks) improves some kinds of memory.
Pitfalls? Tons, yes, where does one start?! But the level of suffering in the living world is now an adjustable parameter. As a society, I think we need a debate about how much pain and misery we want to conserve or create.
* * *
Getting rid of involuntary suffering is only one strand of the transhumanist project. But one needn't be a neo-Buddhist to recognise the importance of phasing out involuntary suffering. Compare the World Health Organization definition of health: https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/constitution.
Is good health for all as defined by the WHO feasible without biological-genetic interventions? As transhumanists, we all favour radical life-extension. But it's worth recalling that for many millions of people today, life drags on too long. Almost a million people took their own lives each year. Hundreds of millions of people suffer from the horrors of depression. We need an integrated approach to ensure that all sentient beings can flourish.
KaramQa, religious believers and scientific rationalists alike can support getting rid of involuntary suffering. The difference is that scientific rationalists have the tools for the job. For instance, consider the proposal for a large well-controlled trial of CRISPR babies with benign versions of the FAAH gene and FAAH-OUT gene (cf. "She Thought It Was Normal"). Creating “transhuman” children who wouldn't suffer like neurotypical humans would be highly controversial. I can think of lots of risks to be weighed. But the proposal is not ill-defined or religiously-inspired.
Unquantifiable suffering? Recall how behavioural psychologists "operationalise" levels of pain and pleasure by testing how hard human and nonhuman animals will work to obtain or avoid rewarding or noxious stimuli. The results of behavioural tests tend to coincide with the reports of verbally competent adult human subjects. The genetic, pharmacological, neurobiological and behavioural evidence all converges.
Intuitively, yes, discontent is the engine of progress. But compare the rapid advance of AI without the nasty "raw feels" of distress. Most relevantly for us, what's critical for intellectual and societal progress is information-sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli, not our absolute point on the hedonic scale. As it happens, the people with the highest hedonic set-points also tend to be the most motivated. Conversely, pain-ridden depressives are prone to get "stuck in a rut". (cf. gradients.com)
Yes, it's good to research in depth everything that could go wrong - whether phasing out the biology of suffering, ending aging, or creating full-spectrum superintelligence. But forewarned is forearmed. Consider again the chronically happy and pain-free Jo Cameron with her unique(?) double mutation of the FAAH and FAAH-OUT genes. Jo is a socially responsible vegan, retired schoolteacher, and pillar of the local community - not (as far as I know) a crazed serial killer.
As well exhaustively researching everything that could go wrong, I think as transhumanists we should also explore what could go right. Pain thresholds, default anxiety levels, hedonic range and hedonic set-points are now adjustable parameters in human and nonhuman animals alike. As a society, we need a debate about how much suffering we want to preserve in the living world. We are living in the final century of life on Earth where involuntary suffering is inevitable.
Tim, yes, raising IQ scores is feasible. I doubt the enhancement of the controversial Chinese CRISPR twins was done "inadvertently"
But given our crude conception of intelligence, boosting children’s IQ would almost certainly boost their AQ too:
A more "autistic" cognitive style may (or may not) be desirable for society as a whole; but this cognitive shift almost certainly won't be preplanned, just a by-product.
I guess I'm more comfortable pushing a eugenics program geared to promoting individual subjective well-being - though intelligence-amplification is probably inevitable in the long run too.
Marco, human diversity of hedonic set-points suggests that evolution has played around with the dials, so to speak. There has been no tribe or society where everyone is hyperthymic or everyone is depressive - although there are genetic variations between human populations. Likewise, to the best of our knowledge, no species has a reward architecture based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of bliss. If gradients of bliss were genetically adaptive, then we’ve no reason to believe such a reward architecture would technically be hard to evolve - as today’s hedonic outliers illustrate. I think the question we need to ask is not whether gradients of bliss were adaptive in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), but whether such a reward architecture will be adaptive under a regime of designer-babies. Yes, in my view. I’m much more pessimistic about timescales than most transhumanists, but the very nature of selection pressure is poised to change:
The Reproductive Revolution
“Turn your wounds into wisdom.”
Does suffering make one wise?
Alas, the only thing suffering has taught me is that pain ought not to exist...
The next step in human evolution?
The Family That Feels Almost No Pain
Syndromes where "sufferers" feel almost no pain but information-signalling is conserved hint at the possibility of creating a "low-pain" world - and without assuming crazily advanced technology.
Imagine if a predisposition to chronic low mood and high anxiety were recognised as a serious but treatable hereditary genetic disorder - with all prospective parents given the opportunity to have healthy offspring as part of basic healthcare:
This Gene Mutation Causes Some People to Feel Naturally High
45 percent of Yoruban Nigerians have the mutation, which might help explain:
("Pain free, thanks to evolution")
to resistance to aging
naked mole rats point to our civilised future.
One can guess some of the pitfalls. Today (in the UK) around 1 in 7 children each year end up in causality. Accidents happen. Parents don't get blamed for having kids who do reckless things. But what will be the media response when the first high-pain threshold, high hedonic set-point CRISPR kid falls victim to something similar? "Evil Scientists Murdered My Baby Says Grieving Mother", etc. If the child had been more neurotic, would the accident have been averted? With the help of genome-editing and smart prostheses, I think civilisation will eventually switch to a more civilised signaling system. But the complications are huge and far-reaching.
[on The Abolitionist Project and Transhumanism]
“For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.”
("Transhumanism with David Pearce")
("David Pearce: How Biotechnology Can Abolish Suffering")
("David Pearce on Ending Suffering")
[on DP Quotations]
“One good quote is worth a book.”
I was intrigued to discover:
[on the Measurement Problem of Quantum Mechanics]
Are the measurement problem of QM and the binding problem of neuroscience two sides of the same coin?
A solution to the measurement problem of QM?
("How serious is the measurement problem concerning the validity of the various interpretations in quantum mechanics?")
[on non-materialist physicalism]
“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”
A German edition of my “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture:
Not to be confused with
Manu, a couple of points:
1. Consciousness realism.
What would it mean to say your headache is an "illusion"? Headaches and illusions alike are kinds of consciousness. Only a small minority of researchers are anti-realists about consciousness. But among consciousness realists, there is a big divide between:
a) a minority of philosophically-inclined folk who believe all one ever knows directly are the contents of one’s own conscious mind the phenomenal world-simulation it runs
b) direct realists, who believe they directly access via perception the mind-independent physical world. Most perceptual direct realists tend to identify consciousness with the serial stream of logico-linguistic thought and reflective self-awareness (seemingly) located just behind their forehead. By contrast, if inferential realism is true, consciousness embraces your entire world-simulation - of which your body-image is just a small part.
I am confident that consciousness realism is true. Likewise inferential realism about the mind-independent world and a world-simulation account of perception. The ethical relevance of this view is just to reaffirm that animals from worms to pigs to babies are subjects of experience and worthy of moral consideration. Hence the abolitionist project genetically to reprogram the biosphere.
2.The Hard Problem of consciousness (and the binding problem, the palette problem, the problem of (non-redundant) causal-functional efficacy, etc).
All solutions are intuitively crazy. I explore non-materialst physicalism - more specially, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument. Unlike consciousness realism and a world-simulation story of perception, I don't pretend to know if non-materialist physicalism is true. It's empirically adequate and potentially experimentally falsifiable. I won’t claim more. It's also so counter-intuitive I struggle to take it seriously at times.
Non-materialist physicalism transposes the entire mathematical apparatus of modern physics to an idealist ontology. Strictly, consciousness is around 13.8 billion years old. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience rather than insentience. Our minds and the world-simulations we run disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical.
One might guess that - in common with animism, property-dualist panpsychism and traditional idealism - non-materialist physicalism very generously populates reality with mind. But no. Rocks, plants, digital computers and so forth aren’t unified subjects of experience. So what makes awake animal mind-brains special? Non-psychotic phenomenal binding. I could now go off on my quantum mind spiel. If non-materialist physicalism and classical field theory were true, then we'd be micro-experiential zombies, mere aggregates of mind-dust, just like plants, rocks and digital computers. But the superposition principle of QM allows classically-impossible phenomenal binding in the brain. Zurek’s “Quantum Darwinism” (i.e. the decoherence program in mainstream quantum mechanics) applied to the CNS offers a potential selection-mechanism to explain why some quantum-coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-processors are more dynamically stable than others.
Ethical implications? Well, on this story, silicon robots, digital computers of all kinds, future “whole-brain emulations" (etc) aren’t going to wake up. Centuries from now, maybe non-biological quantum computers will be unified subjects of experience. But we've no grounds for thinking they’ll be endowed with a pleasure-pain axis. Tomorrow’s cyborgs raise complications but no more.
However, what if the story above is fundamentally wrong? After all, the majority of AI researchers believe that digital computers will sooner or later "wake up". Most AI researchers and computer science professionals are consciousness realists but also implicitly epiphenomenalists. And consciousness anti-realists? If you are an anti-realist, then maybe you worry that silicon robots or video-game characters will somehow undergo the "illusion" of agony. IMO, the distinction between appearance and reality collapses with the “raw feels” of subjective experience. If you believe you're undergoing terrible pain, then you're undergoing terrible pain. Maybe you also think that it's God punishing you for your sins (or whatever), but losing faith in God doesn’t get rid of the pain. I normally treat Brian as a consciousness realist because if the consciousness anti-realism he avows were literally true, then I can't see how his work would have any value. It's only the fact that consciousness realism is true that makes questions like e.g. "Can video game characters suffer?" of intellectual interest and ethical importance.
Now back to "Modern Combat Versus"...
Magnus, a quantum superposition ("cat state") is an individual physical state. We know (or rather believe) that superpositions must be real because of e.g. the classically-impossible interference signature in a double-slit experiment.
(1) quantum mechanics is complete (i.e. no hidden variables or "dynamical collapse" story)
(2) the intrinsic nature argument (i.e. our phenomenal minds disclose the essence of the physical)
When you experience, say, a unified cat, that unity doesn't consist in an aggregate of classical neurons firing (edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons and so forth). If that were so, then you'd just be a microexperiential zombie. Instead, the unity consists in individual superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors.
A critic may respond that neuronal superpositions don't exist: But if so, quantum mechanics is incomplete / false.
Another critic will respond that neuronal superpositions are irrelevant to consciousness. The dynamical timescale is wrong - femtoseconds not milliseconds.
But if the intrinsic nature argument is true, then this objection doesn't work. Consciousness is the essence of the physical. So any individual physical state is consciousness.
To stress, I don't know whether the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism is true. I'm agnostic. I just explore its implications. Some of these counterintuitive implications can be experimentally (dis)confirmed via interferometry. The results can thereby verify or falsify the conjecture. Most likely the true explanation transcends our conceptual scheme.
The anti-speciesist revolution will be messy...
("Vegan bride slammed for banning meat-eating relatives from big day")
A cruelty-free lifestyle can be criticised with varying levels of sophistication.
NatWest worker told customer 'vegans should be punched'
Will tasty meat substitutes (“Beyond Meat”, etc) be enough to get the death factories shut and outlawed? Or will cultured meat and animal products be the only way to end the animal holocaust and “veganise” the world?
Penalties for animal and child abuse
Should meat and animal products carry a label certifying that real suffering beings were harmed?
Dairy industry to take legal action against vegan ‘cheesemonger’
Catnip-laced cultured meat, genetic tweaking or artificial intelligence: what’s the best way to civilise human and nonhuman predators?
How to stop your cat from getting away with murder
("An Amazon engineer made an AI-powered cat flap to stop his cat from bringing home dead animals")
Some people 'genetically wired' to avoid some vegetables
It’s true. My worry is that this genetic vulnerability will be seized upon by meat-eaters who’ll claim they are obligate carnivores. In reality, a healthy, ethical and cruelty-free diet is possible even if you’re a PAV homozygote “super-taster”.
Do No Harm Policy In Minds For Other Substrates
It's surreal. Humans are murdering billions of sentient beings akin to small children. Meanwhile, in the midst of the animal holocaust, meat-eating philosophers are fretting about rights for digital zombies. I wonder what it will take for AI theorists to recognise that classical computers will never wake up. Sure, if you imagine our minds as akin to classical Turing machines, then “substrate chauvinism” sounds perverse. But phenomenal binding is not a classical phenomenon:
How binding is possible with abandoning physicalism is a deep question:
Is the brain a quantum computer?
Falloutfan2002, the stem cells for growing cultured meat can in principle be extracted via biopsy by veterinarians in the course of a legitimate medical procedure to help the nonhuman animal in question. In theory, one can argue there are still ethical issues of consent - the same could be said of stem cells extracted from humans - but any further debate now gets rather theological. I suspect the real objection of some vegans and animal activists to cultured meat isn't really about the source of stem cells, but rather a sense that cultured meat is a distraction. Factory-farms and slaughterhouses should be shut and outlawed now, not at some nebulous time in the future when cheap gourmet cultured products finally reach the supermarkets. And of course I agree – in principle. Talking about developing such technical fixes in the midst of an animal holocaust feels morally frivolous. Yet we've got to be hard-headed. Sociologically, politically, what is the quickest and most effective way to end industrialised animal abuse worldwide? Vegans shouldn't over-estimate our powers of persuasion. The only credible way I know to get factory-farms and slaughterhouses shut in our lifetime (rather than over centuries) is to ensure zero personal inconvenience to morally apathetic consumers - with the bonus of being able to signal one's superior virtue by choosing in vitro products over otherwise identical traditional meat.
This may sound cynical – sorry – but I’m just trying to be dispassionate. What will work?
“Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
Or cultured meat?
Will vegetarians ever comprise more than half of the world’s population?
The closure of factory-farms and slaughterhouses will probably involve paying reparations to the owners and perpetrators. But it’s a price worth paying.
When slaveowners got reparations
Paying to harm sentient beings isn't EA. Instead, EAs should support getting slaughterhouses shut and outlawed. Without slaughterhouses, the whole apparatus of industrialised animal abuse will collapse. We've no hope of creating a world based on systematically helping sentient beings if we are systematically harming them instead - or paying others to do so:
47% of Americans agree with ban on slaughterhouses
* * *
Understandable - but IMO misguided. Cultured meat is the best hope of getting all factory-farms and slaughterhouses shut and outlawed in our lifetime...
The Clean Meat Hoax
Ethically trivial to the point of obscenity but critical to ending industrialised animal abuse...
Veganising the biosphere will pose many challenges:
("Researchers discover meat-eating plant in Ontario, Canada")
We can overturn the "fundamental fact" of biology but not of physics...
Veganism and choline
Being a lazy vegan is potentially bad for one's brain health. Being a lazy meat-eater is invariably bad for the brain health of others. Fortunately, we don't have to choose.
Might the brain health of a strict vegetarian like Ramanujan - perhaps the greatest mathematician of all time - have been enhanced if he ate a rich source of choline like eggs? We don't know. Coming to England at a time of food shortages in WW1 certainly took a toll on his health. I suspect the IQ gap between meat eaters and vegetarians and vegans would be wider still if (a) all vegans and vegetarians practised optimal nutrition (b) IQ tests included measures of social cognition as well as the “autistic” component of general intelligence. Either way, we could all do with optimising our diet – nutritionally and ethically. And ethically, I think it's more important to get factory-farms and slaughterhouses shut and outlawed than worrying about personal vegan purity.
Vegetarians vs meat-eaters
History records many docile meat-eaters and aggressive vegetarians - including one notorious twentieth century German dictator. But what I was exploring in my answer was the possibility that (beyond non-violence towards nonhuman animals) the lower-protein composition of the typical vegetarian and vegan diet can lead to a subtle behavioural shift in responses to humans too. Even a small difference might have far-reaching societal effects. Compare the traditions of the Indian subcontinent, where diets have been historically vegetarian. I stress this is just a conjecture.
Am I really “more monstrous than Hitler”? That’s quite a harsh judgement, Mike. Do you honestly believe it’s fair? Yes, I think we should replace factory-farms and slaughterhouses with cultured meat products. Urging a transition to cruelty-free diets isn’t the same as putting meat-eaters in concentration camps. Indeed, the inconvenience to human consumers should be zero.
Whether intelligent moral agents should reprogram the biosphere to minimise or eliminate suffering is a more controversial issue. I’m happy to discuss it. But when you say “comparing his plans to those of Hitler is an insult to Hitler”, I wonder if this would be fruitful. [For the benefit of the bemused causal reader:
Veganising the Biosphere]
Thanks Andrés. As a small child, I believed grass was green. Later I learned about science. Grass isn't really green. Our minds somehow "paint on" phenomenal colour to intrinsically colourless objects. These days, I believe grass is green. Second childhood? Perhaps...
Reality and Perception
Steve, if Dennett's claim were merely that subsystems are necessarily simpler than the system of which they form a part, then I'd agree. Where I'd take issue is his denial of homunculi. The nature of waking perceptual consciousness is contested. So let's say instead that you are having a lucid dream. Where exactly is the phenomenal body that you can touch and see within the dream? Where exactly is the drama that unfolds in front of you? To grasp what’s going on, you need to distinguish between your empirical skull - that you can feel with your virtual hands - and the transcendental skull within which the drama of your inner theatre plays out. For sure, positing a regress of nested homunculi within your empirical skull would be an error. But your empirical body is a homunculus. Your mind-brain is running a phenomenal world-simulation that masquerades as the external world.
Alex, I especially like Hoffman's metaphor of the perceptual objects in our world-simulations as "interface icons". Thus a neurosurgeon probing his patient’s exposed brain / neural interface icon isn't going to find consciousness - or even a perfect structural match with his patient’s self-reports - any more than probing the icons on one's PC desktop is going to reveal the underlying file structure of one’s computer. That said, IMO the book title is a bit sensationalist. Reality is real - sadly - and much vaster than our minds. I think physicalism (as distinct from materialism) is probably true; hence the success of modern technological civilisation. One may suspect (as I do) that non-materialist physicalism could be true and even that Hilbert space rather that spacetime is fundamental; but such speculation doesn't uncut realism, merely perceptual direct realism.
[on Brock Bastian's critique of The Hedonistic Imperative]
"The Other Side of Happiness Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living" (2018)
by Brock Bastian.
"There are four reasons why I think we should be sceptical of Pearce's project":
1) Hedonic adaptation theory
The quick and lazy refutation is intracranial self-stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system ("wireheading").
Wireheading doesn't show physiological tolerance. It's as exhilarating after ten hours as ten minutes.
However, HI doesn't urge ending hedonic adaptation, but rather, ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points:
Gradients.com & What is the root cause of all suffering?.
2) The relativity of pain and pleasure
("How would we ever know what pleasure is if we experienced nothing else?")
Some people, tragically, endure chronic pain and depression.
Would we seriously claim that pain-ridden depressives can't really understand pain and depression because they can't contrast ghastly states of mind with experiences above hedonic zero?
3) Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin
("Narrowed emotional bandwidth")
Yes, we could create a narrow-contrast, equable +95 to +100 civilisation.
But we could also create a high-contrast, mercurial +70 to +100 civilisation.
Tomorrow's hedonic floor can be higher than today's hedonic ceiling. Hedonic contrast can be softened or amplified as desired. Our emotional palette can be diversified as well.
4) The paradox of hedonism
("According to Pearce we should aim to seek pleasure")
In the sense we should upgrade our reward circuitry, i.e. hedonic recalibration and enrichment, yes.
But all of the things we care about (unrelated to pleasure conceived as such) can in future be pursued with greater vigour, motivation and drive for success if we biologically-genetically upgrade. Hedonic recalibration can conserve your values and preferences - and conserve critical insight and social responsibility.
Hedonic recalibration doesn't entail buying into someone else's vision of utopia.
According to Brock Bastian (and Jordan Petersen et al.), pain and suffering give life more meaning.
But empirically, prolonged suffering and low mood tend to drain life of meaning.
Other things being equal, more happiness promotes more meaning too.
Jason, agreed, the track record of utopias isn’t good. But phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering isn’t the vision of a perfect world. Even a CRISPR-driven biohappiness revolution isn’t the recipe for utopia. Raising your hedonic range doesn’t call for heroic sacrifices. Nor does ratcheting up your hedonic set-point harm others, or entail abandoning your existing values, or call for ruinous expense. I think there should be exhaustive research exploring all the conceivable ways anything and everything could go wrong in world without experience below hedonic zero. But talk of “sacrificial skulls” is IMO alarmist. No sentient being need be harmed. For what its worth, I urge (as a negative utilitarian) high-tech Jainism...
("Emotionally Extreme Experiences, Not Just “Positive” or “Negative” Experiences, Are More Meaningful in Life". Peak emotional experiences are the most meaningful ones in our lives.")
I worry about an ambiguity of language here. (“the most meaningful events were those that were extremely pleasant or extremely painful.”)
“Meaningful” and “significant” are often used as synonyms. Yet their senses can come apart. Intense well-being always makes life feel intensely meaningful and significant. Conversely, intense and unrelieved suffering makes countless lives today feel meaningless. But intense suffering, by it’s very nature, feels significant. Life is both meaningful and significant in Heaven, whereas the torments of Hell are merely significant.
The biohappiness revolution promises a Meaning Explosion too.
Stuart, perhaps consider why around 850,000 people take their own lives each year, and why tens of millions self-harm. People who find life meaningful don't try to end it. By contrast, people who seek self-deliverance are the victims of emotionally extreme negative experiences. And that's just the tip of an iceberg of suffering. If we want a world without nihilism, meaningless suffering and existential angst, then we'll need to tackle the biological-genetic roots of the problem. A biohappiness revolution can't promise transcendental meaning - whatever that might be! - but it can deliver empirical meaning beyond our wildest dreams.
Some people are born incurably happy. Should we develop gene therapy for people with a dysfunctional UBE3A gene (cf. “happy puppet syndrome” (Angelman Syndrome) so they can suffer?
What mood is best for understanding reality?
Should reality make us glad or sad? (John Horgan)
Can biotech replace depressive realism with euphoric realism?
Are you a seeker of reality?
Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
Should we accept natural selection:
The Happiness Dilemma
(“Why Natural Selection Means We'll Never Be Happy”)
Or embrace unnatural selection?
Gradients of Bliss
How do you break the hedonic treadmill?
Why We Fall Back To The Baseline
We need a biohappiness revolution to ratchet up hedonic set-points worldwide. Unless we tackle the biological-genetic roots of the problem, our efforts to create a better world will turn to ashes. I hope transhumanists, effective altruists, the rationalist community and mainstream medicine can rise to the challenge. A biohappiness revolution is sooner-or-later going to go mainstream. Here is Brian Armstrong, the co-founder of Coinbase, on genome-editing: “It could change the scale of human happiness and productivity by many orders of magnitude.” Pros and cons
Is there a genetic-biological basis to national differences in (un)happiness:
("Genes may contribute to making some nations happier than others")
Thanks Ekaterinya! I think we should support universal basic income.
A couple of reservations.
First, compare how The Global Happiness Report ranks Indonesia at 92 in the world with, say,
In other words, all sorts of anomalies arise when we blend our judgements of who "ought" to be (un)happy with who self-reportedly is (un)happy.
The danger of making such sceptical comments is they encourage tolerance of social injustice and inequality. But most people still think that improving society is the panacea for a happy world, whereas it's only half the story. Biological-genetic interventions will be essential too. There are an awful lot of unhappy Finns (cf. https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/news/more_than_400000_people_in_finland_take_anti-depressants/10639847).
Second, if the Global Happiness Report recorded the (un)happiness of only white people, it would leap off the page. Recording the (un)happiness of humans seems natural and unremarkable. The plight of non-human animals is invisible.
I fear a true Global Happiness Report might read quite differently.
That said, roll on unlimited material abundance for all...
"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."
(George W. Bush)
Is there any evidence of other animals being self aware?
"Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.”
Man Plans to Sue His Parents For Bringing Him into This World Without His Consent
Alas selection pressure means that anti-natalism is not a panacea.
Making babies is a genetic crapshoot, but are we entitled to load the dice?
Triple S Genetic Counseling
“We've created life in our own image.”
Is humankind some kind of virus?
Alas, offering family planning also intensifies selection pressure in favour of (a predisposition to) natalist fanaticism.
But with designer babies, we can create selection pressure in favour of (super-)happiness...
Making Babies in the Year 2045
The case for not being born
Alas so. But we can share David Benatar's bleak diagnosis without accepting his extinctionist conclusion. The problem with staying child-free and encouraging others to do likewise is we simply intensify the selection pressure against anti-natalism....
What are the arguments against antinatalism?
Great video. Thanks for making it. Could I just clarify one point? You quote me as saying “the future belongs to life lovers”. This wasn't intended as an endorsement. Rather, it was a comment about the nature of selection pressure. The problem is that "hard" and "soft" anti-natalists alike tend to remove ourselves from the gene pool. If I thought selection pressure in favour of natalism could be overcome, then I'd be a "hard" anti-natalist too.
Alex, just to clarify. Yes, I think Darwinian life is monstrous. But a majority of people - and quite possibly most free-living nonhuman animals who aren’t starving - spend most of their lives above hedonic zero. Despite the appalling statistics, most people aren’t clinically or sub-clinically depressed. Likewise, despite the appalling statistics for chronic pain disorders, most people aren't in physical pain. If suicide were a painless OFF button to press, then countless millions of people would use it; but billions of life lovers wouldn’t. Discontent is often genetically adaptive; only rarely suicidal depression.
So there is a fine line to tread. Life can be grim enough without radical anti-natalists, negative utilitarians and Benatarian human extinctionists reminding us of how dreadful it can be - and perhaps making depressives even more depressed. On the other hand, if one insists on accentuating the positive, then the desperate need for a biohappiness revolution is obscured. Recall I’m not a “hard” anti-natalist, admittedly for technical reasons of selection pressure. I think we should focus on making life better!
The Curse of Existence
Thanks Saagar. “Why does Benatar see ‘suffering’ as bad? Life without trials and tribulations is not worth living. Suffering of any kind is what makes life meaningful and beautiful”, says one commenter. Do you (or anyone else in the group) know anywhere David Benatar addresses the argument from selection pressure? Soft” antinatalists, NUs, and advocates of suffering-focused ethics can work together with life lovers to get rid of suffering. We could abolish suffering with a One Hundred Year Plan, though I predict a timescale of centuries. By contrast, “hard” antinatalists and other elifists are doomed to futile antagonism - and the extinctionists will lose. In the YouTube interview, David Benatar says that, unlike chronic pain, chronic pleasure isn’t possible. However, we know that neurologically this isn’t correct. The much harder challenge is to engineer life with intelligent, information-sensitive gradients of well-being - and persuade prospective parents to code accordingly...
"The capacity to feel pain is one of nature’s gifts to humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom.” Let‘s get rid of unsolicited gifts."
The Mysteries of Pain
* * *
Benevolent Artificial Antinatalism
A Reply to Thomas Metzinger
As Neuralink scenarios move from hype to reality, I think greater-than-human intelligence is going to be "us" rather than some alien being that emerges from smart software in digital computers (the original I.J. Good Intelligence Explosion scenario) whether by accident or design. My views on AI and ethics are fairly idiosyncratic (cf. Quantum Ethics). So let's assume instead Thomas Metzinger's artificial super-ethicist scenario. An AGI (sentient or nonsentient?) has been created to advise humanity on ethical issues. What is the most sociologically credible outcome? Whether we realise it or not, some human value-systems (Buddhism, negative utilitarianism, classical utilitarianism etc) are inconsistent with long-term human survival. It doesn’t take AGI to work this out. But human survival is axiomatic in other value-systems, especially religious value-systems. The only effect of choosing to stay childfree is to intensify selection pressure against (any predisposition to) antinatalism.
Also, how smart do we suppose this AGI super-ethicist advisor is going to be? Many ethical dilemmas are insoluble by any level of intelligence - for the same reason that the conflicting preferences of 100 different football supporters for their respective team to win the cup are irreconcilable. Yet if this hypothetical AGI is seriously intelligent, then presumably it can advise prospective parents on how to have kids with a higher hedonic range, higher hedonic set-points, lower pain thresholds, and even gradients of lifelong superhuman bliss - perhaps the ultimate fate of life in the cosmos. Such advice is more likely to be heeded than advice to stay childfree.
Trying to model the nature of selection pressure in the wake of the coming reproductive revolution involves too many unknowns to be done with any confidence. But IMO we can be fairly confident of one prediction: the future belongs to life-lovers with a strong status quo bias in favour of their own survival and reproduction – in some guise. Anti-natalists, negative utilitarians and all subscribers to suffering-focused ethics need to accept that (for evolutionary reasons) this status quo bias is ineradicable - even if some of us might privately wish the whole pain-ridden horror-show would just stop.
Nature is a cruel machine for creating suffering. Once Darwinian malware starts to proliferate, it can’t be stopped.
Anti-natalists: The people who want you to stop having babies
But can malware be made harmless via genome-editing? Could post-Darwinian life even be good?
Why DP is wrong about anti-natalism
Is anti-natalism a psychiatric disorder?
[on immersive VR]
The Great Virtual Escape
Awesome essay Daniel. Yes, The Great Virtual Escape will accelerate, though selection pressure in basement reality forbids true autonomy. We won't get (un-)happier unless we upgrade our reward circuitry. Neuroprostheses may become ubiquitous, but not (IMO!) mind-uploading (cf. Quantum Minds?)
Let food be thy medicine…?
("Can you eat yourself happier?")
[on the future]
Human genetic experimentation: where will it end?
Will human genetic experiments be needed for transhumanism?
Transhuman neo-Buddhist Andrés Gómez Emillson of Qualia Computing:
"Letter from Utopia" and Other Triple-S Transhumanist Media
Personalised CRISPR gene-editing to enrich mood and motivation in existing humans should be feasible in a few years. Full-spectrum cognitive enhancement is harder IMO. Optimal nutrition, aerobic exercise and sleep discipline can be combined with neurochipping. But when?
I foresee a future of pain, suffering and nuclear war.
But we’re going to reprogram the biosphere. There’s maybe a 50-50 chance the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur later this millennium...
Life in the Year 3000
Today’s psychonauts know that the weird states of consciousness induced by major psychedelics are impossible to express to the drug-naïve within the resources of our conceptual scheme. But what about everyday life in a civilisation with a hedonic range of, say +70 to a plus +100 compared to our -10 to 0 to +10? Have we any sense what life might be like? Wittgenstein remarked how “The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy”, but what about the world of the superhappy? If faced with a conservative audience, it's wise to stress how most traditional values and preferences can be conserved by extreme hedonic recalibration. In principle, this promise could be kept. In practice, I suspect most of today’s bric-a-brac will seem irrelevant to posthuman minds:
The Tyranny of the Intentional Object
[on "mixed" states]
Physical Pain as Pleasure
What is the future of "mixed" states? Pure pleasure (or pure ill-being) can be mild, moderate or superhumanly intense. But a lot of human states of mind are a mixture of the pleasant and pleasant - with either the positive or negative aspect dominating. For keen BDSM aficionados, the positive dominates. More widely, however, I think a lot of people fear that a superhappy world - even a world underpinned by preference-conserving gradients of bliss - would deprive their lives of something valuable. For instance, consider our nearest and dearest. Alas, friends, family and lovers aren't always a source of unalloyed delight. Yet most people would reject the option of replacing their loved ones with pure pleasure - unless of course they actually tried the euphoriant in question, but that’s a different story. Clearly, any story of the long-term future of mixed states is speculative. In a civilisation with a hedonic range of +70 to a +100, there could be pure seventies, eighties and nineties with complicated mixed states too (Anything hedonically sub-zero from the Darwinian era would be literally inconceivable). But maybe the future lies in hedonic purity. Sticking to this century, my main reservation about even broadly positive mixed states is that they simply aren't rewarding enough. Take meditation. People who meditate typically report positive effects. Yet even its advocates acknowledge "difficult" experiences (cf. Meditation: problems)
On a more practical note, I wonder what will happen when we finally discover the molecular signature of pure bliss. Despite the cardinal role of the mu opioid receptor in current research (cf. The mu opioid receptor) I think the heart of the mystery lies inside the neuron – with the huge complication that any adequate theory of mind needs an account of phenomenal binding.
[on Hedonistic Imperative bingo]
With thanks to the incomparable Andrés Gómez Emilsson of QRI...
I wonder how (and when) the big breakthrough will come? IMO, the existence of life based entirely on gradients of bliss will eventually be a background assumption of everyday living - nothing “deep” or philosophical, let alone controversial. By contrast, it’s painful to contemplate today just how marginal we still are - I added the Barker link precisely because it’s unusual. So what exactly will it take for the agenda of a genetically-based Biohappiness Revolution to hit the mainstream?
(A larger-than-life billionaire with a vision? Charisma, cool, “star power”, celebrity?)
oh to be Keanu Reeves...
The Keanu Meme Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering (audio book) Kindle
How empirically adequate is modern science?
The State of Physics
Orrab, first, I suspect many (most?) physicists would agree with your minimalist approach. Quantum mechanics works: what more can we want? Wordy philosophical tracts can be written on whether the purpose of science is to understand the universe or "just” to devise empirically adequate theories. However, in my view, the problem of quantum mechanics is that it's not even empirically adequate. The unitary Schrödinger dynamics suggests that superpositions, including macro-superpositions, should be ubiquitous. Instead, we experience - or at least appear to experience - only definite outcomes. Why? See too e.g. Paul Mainwood's answer to "Does decoherence solve the measurement problem in quantum theory?" I suspect you'll find my answer (and especially the links) too "philosophical" and speculative for your taste. But all physics is steeped in philosophical assumptions. Ignoring them doesn’t transcend philosophy, but instead risks giving treacherous philosophical assumptions a free pass. IMO!
Few biologists today would bother to disavow vitalism. There is no irreducible “élan vital" (life force). We now treat it as obvious that life can be reduced to molecular biology - and hence via chemistry to physics. By the same token, a majority of practising scientists today are physicalists - not as a badge they wear on the tee-shirts, but rather because scientists mostly take for granted that ultimately everything supervenes on the underlying physics. Dualism must (we believe) be false. Alas, there is a huge difference between biological life and consciousness. Whereas one can (with a huge amount of handwaving, admittedly) reduce life to the Standard Model, no one has the slightest idea how to derive subjective experience from fields of insentience.
The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Is reality awash with spooky non-local correlations?
I don’t know, but disenchantment won’t rescue common sense...
British prudery stops me exploring the future of sexuality. But compared to transhuman sensuality, today’s most passionate lovemaking may be light foreplay. Neuroscience can identify the molecular signature(s) of the erotic - then massively purify, enrich and overexpress the substrates of passion. Days of heavenly whole-body orgasms could be routine, though we should be beware of the fate of the antechinus.
Sex and the Antechinus
Not to be confused with an AI paperclip-maximiser:
The Man Who Loved Only Safety Pins
Do values and disvalues change? In one sense, obviously, yes. But in another sense, no. Agony and despair are just as subjectively disvaluable now as they were a million years ago. Perhaps the reason we aren't all closet utilitarians is epistemological (cf. https://www.quora.com/How-do-you-interpret-human-consciousness-Are-you-the-center-of-the-universe). But a classical utilitarian ethic has a ticking time-bomb for civilisation. As a NU, I argue for life based on gradients of intelligent bliss. A strict CU can’t accept such a suboptimal cosmos.
Adam, yes, in practice, almost no NU would press an OFF switch to avert a pinprick. But we would press the OFF switch to prevent the torment of a single child (cf. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas). Epistemic humility is clearly desirable given human cognitive and ethical frailty. But epistemic humility is hard to disentangle from status quo bias. Thus a willingness to press a notional OFF switch for the world strikes many people as monstrous arrogance. Yet compare pressing a notional COPY button to create a type-identical copy of this world. You might or might not press the COPY button. But even critics of your professed choice – either way - probably wouldn't condemn you for hubris.
Many non-philosophers will feel exasperated by these thought-experiments. But given the absence of experimental tests as in science, conjuring up “extreme” examples is the best we can do to put moral theories to the test. If we aren't prepared to swallow the implications of our own theory, then there is something wrong with the theory.
John, we (dis)value so many different things it’s easy to lose sight of what unites us, from worms to pigs to humans. (“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. ... This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves." - Pascal). Wherever life has evolved in the universe, IMO sentient beings are likely to be slaves of the pleasure-pain axis - although intelligent beings smart enough to master their own reward circuitry will occupy only one end of it. If truly alien (dis)value exists, artificial intelligence is the most likely candidate. Unlike with humans, winning at chess is Deep Blue’s “ultimate” value. But I worry that ascribing (dis)values to digital zombies in anthropomorphic.
("David Pearce: manipulando nuestros genes erradicaremos el sufrimiento")
Ethics professors are no more ethical than the rest of us
Not entirely perhaps.
Is there a version of consequentialism that isn't susceptible to absurd conclusions given the right thought experiment?
Good question Stuart. If there is an objectively correct theory of ethics, is there any reason to expect it to conform to something resembling commonsense - any more than this should be a requirement of the true theory of fundamental physics? This question is easy to pose in the abstract - much harder to confront when one's own values are at stake.
Lance, the badness of suffering is self-intimating. By contrast, the judgement that an absence of pleasure is bad is not self-intimating: people can (and do) disagree. So we’re using “bad” in two different senses. It’s not clear how the two senses are linked.
Lance, you write of “the third possibility: those who disagree with them misinterpret the nature of their own consciousness”. But this very possibility - which I take seriously - explicitly assumes consciousness realism. I’ve never done a systematic survey of philosophers. Do let us know your results if you ever conduct even a straw-poll. But I predict any radical eliminativists will indeed tend to have a high AQ - as well as a high IQ! Psychonauts versus the drug naive? There is no guarantee that experimentalists will talk sense about consciousness - any more than investigators in medicine, chemistry or physics who pursue the experimental method are sure to understand the nature of matter and energy. But the experimental method beats mere philosophising. Unless we are willing to expand our evidential base, we will be hopelessly intellectually handicapped. Why do I assume consciousness anti-realists will typically be perceptual direct realists? Well, all I’ve ever known, except by speculative inference, have been the contents of my own phenomenal mind. The texture of my logico-linguistic thought episodes is phenomenally thin, subtle and elusive. So I can (just about!) understand how someone could come to believe they have no cognitive phenomenology at all. But disbelief in all visual and auditory experience - and indeed disbelief in ones’s entire phenomenal world-simulation? To me this comes close to metaphysical nihilism.
Perception and Consciousness
After we have got rid of suffering on Earth, will our ethical duties have been discharged? Although the Rare Earth hypothesis is unproven, it’s looking increasingly credible.
Adam, an important question. IMO evolution doesn't explain why some states of matter and energy, for example agony and despair, are intrinsically disvaluable. Evolution does explain why a (conditionally-activated predisposition to) their occurrence has been selected over other states. I say a bit more in e.g.
Do subjective moral values exist? What is DP's position on meta-ethics?
Tim, I fear our background assumptions may be different. If one grants the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s sovereign metric of (dis)value, then the fact painful and pleasurable states can in principle be quantified has profound policy implications. Of course, not everyone accepts this analysis. Evolution via natural selection has ensured that we fetishise all sorts of fitness-enhancing intentional objects. So the common currency of (dis)value can be heavily disguised.
[on moral enhancement]
The warrior gene? On a personal note, I've explored the psychological and behavioural effects of different levels of MAO-A and MAO-B inhibition, though not under battlefield conditions. Thus I've tried tranylcypromine (Parnate, an unselective irreversible MAO inhibitor), moclobemide (a selective MAO inhibitor) rasagiline (a selective MAO-B inhibitor) and (since 1995) selegiline (less selective than rasagiline but also more pro-dopaminergic). Selective MAO-A inhibition makes me more passive rather than bellicose, whereas I find MAO-B inhibition more activating (partly because of selegiline's active trace metabolites). But selegiline is also anxiogenic, due in part to increased availability of phenylethylamine.
Naturally, one shouldn't set too much store on one's own experiences. But if the (non-trivial) safety issues of MAOIs can be resolved, do MAOIs have a role in the moral enhancement debate - and maybe gene-editing to create more benign alleles of the MAO enzyme? Alas, given the complications and unknown unknowns, I'm sceptical - at least for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps a case could be made for boosting everyone’s oxytocin function. Oxytocin tends to make people more trusting and maybe more trustworthy too. Taking MDMA (Ecstasy), for instance, releases a flood of oxytocin as well as serotonin and dopamine. But before we can even begin to discuss tools of moral enhancement, we need some sort of agreement on what traits to enhance. Testosterone functionally antagonises oxytocin, but it's simplistic to conceive of testosterone as the bad guy. Utilitarians, transhumanists, effective altruists and so forth tend to be male - and it’s debatable whether the world needs more tribal empaths or more autistic hyper-systematisers. And rather than being untrustworthy, people at the high end of the AQ-scale tend to be more truthful, unlike many devious low-AQ Machiavellian apes. In short, the whole moral enhancement debate is horrendously complicated
"Is marijuana addictive? Yes, in the sense that most of the really pleasant things in life are worth endlessly repeating.”
Alas for side-effects...
Legal weed linked to higher junk food sales
("Research suggests marijuana really does give you the munchies")
Semantic solipsism used to trouble me, but not solipsism. Yet why doesn't the former entail the latter?
Can solipsism be scientifically disproved?
An objective physical touchstone of consciousness would be great. Or (if consciousness is fundamental to the world) an objective physical signature of phenomenal binding, without which there can be no unified subject of experience.
Is there no way out of the mind?”
Do you identify with solipsism?
Should we create new babies with a dreadful genetic disease or wait until this one is cured?
The Truth About Aging
Paleo diet = paleo lifespan?
("A high-carb diet may explain why Okinawans live so long")
Forgotten, not gone
("Carol Tavris surveys a range of new approaches to the old problem of old age")
("The Adult Brain Does Grow New Neurons After All, Study Says. Study points toward lifelong neuron formation in the human brain’s hippocampus, with implications for memory and disease")
An overview of rapamycin:
Rapamycin for longevity: opinion article
Maybe. Eternal life is better in heaven than in hell...
Superlongevity vs superhappiness
Should we continue to create children with a lethal genetic disorder until we can offer them a cure?
The transhumanists who want to live for ever
Aging is horrible:
The right to life-extension
[on the meaning of life]
The Meaning Machine
Post-Darwinian life will probably be orders of magnitude richer in subjective meaning, significance and purpose than our own. Such superhuman meaning will be a side-effect of upgrading our reward circuitry, not the consequence of discovering some deep metaphysical truth about the universe. There is an irony to pleas from well-known pundits like Jordan Peterson who call for prioritising "meaning" over happiness. Getting rid of the biology of suffering in favour of gradients of bliss will create a Meaning Explosion.
I guess critics will be exasperated at this response. What counts is true meaning (mine!) over false meaning (yours). Yet the beauty of hedonic recalibration is that - with complications and subtleties for sure - recalibration enriches everyone's default quality of life without taking sides.
The World Destruction Argument
Suffering has always loomed larger in my life and imagination than happiness. It's tempting (and perhaps accurate) to generalise one's own experience to all sentient life, or at least all sentient Darwinian life. However, many life-loving people find the opposite is true, a lot of the time at any rate. Indeed, such widespread life-affirmation is to be expected if we take an amoral "gene's-eye-view" of the world. Low mood and outright depression seems to be an adaptation to group living in low-rank social animals. Yes, there are some severely depressed and pain-ridden people who can conceive of “happiness" only as an absence of pain; but neurotypical folk just aren't like that. Indeed, if most people conceived of life as essentially nothing but pain and suffering, then they wouldn't be so desperately keen to have kids. There has never been a Buddhist society where everyone agree to stop having children, thereby solving the problem of human suffering. So despite being an NU, I struggle empirically with Simon's view that "there is no positive well-being and that there are no positive experiences". Rather the question is whether empirically good experience somehow ethically outweighs or compensates for the empirically bad (cf. Darwinian malware)
The “point” of escaping pain is self-intimating.
Is the “point” of embracing pleasure self-intimating too?
* * *
This is what’s disconcerting about eternalism: even if a “Big Rip” scenario is true, it’s still the case spacetime (tenselessly) exists. Like modelling the Big Bang, we’re describing merely its boundaries.
Meaning? I fear you will find this answer frustrating:
Meaning or the end of suffering?
But in essence, a sense of meaninglessness and futility is a function of low mood. Lift your mood and everything will seem charged with significance and purpose again. Sometimes one wants meaning in a transcendent sense; it’s not clear what this sense could be. However, biotech can take care of empirical meaning.
[on the future of work]
“A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.”
(Victor Hugo, 'Les Misérables')
Is having a job a right or a privilege?
Can one imagine a society where most people aren't perceptual naïve realists? Running a world-simulation might not matter if our world-simulations were faithful. But they are egocentric cartoons...
What is the “biggest mistake” of philosophy?
Thanks Dzarren. I should have said a bit more. First, some scene-setting. Some very smart people do and don't regard the phenomenal binding problem as a fundamental challenge to physicalism. The seeming (partial) structural mismatch between our minds and the microstructure of the CNS pushes David Chalmers to dualism. Why aren't we (at most) just 86 billion odd pixels of classical, membrane-bound “mind-dust”, or at least just a bunch of distributed neuronal feature-processors? Even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, what explains the classically impossible unity of our minds and the world-simulations we run?
I explore an out-of-the-box solution, namely that our minds consist of neuronal superpositions ("cat states”) of distributed feature-processors. The reason the conjecture is unorthodox is not because of any new theory of physics, but because the theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS is femtoseconds - or less! This kind of timescale is, intuitively, hopelessly wrong for the two kinds of holism to be related. Anyhow, the binding problem as standardly posed simply assumes (rather than derives from QFT) the existence of classical (i.e. decohered) neurons of the kind we can seemingly inspect under a light microscope.
What would we discover if we could inspect an awake brain on a timescale of femtoseconds?
I don’t know: I’m just curious!
And if you think “That’s crazy!” don’t worry, I do too:
What is a quantum mind?
What seems the distant horizon is as much a facet of your consciousness as the stream of feelings and thought-episodes playing out within your virtual head. Whether (theoretically inferred) mind-independent reality is experiential or non-experiential is much more speculative; the equations of physics don’t tell us. But even if the “fire” in the equations is experiential, as idealists propose, its subjective nature doesn’t undercut realism - or monistic physicalism - just materialism. (cf. Perception)
“The Case Against Reality” (2019) is a good book with an unfortunate title. I particularly enjoyed Donald Hoffman’s description of brains - and neurons inspectable under light microscopy - as “interface icons”. We shouldn’t expect an “interface icon” to generate consciousness, or even faithfully display the so-called neural correlates of consciousness.
Where I worry is how Hoffman blurs the ancient idea that each of us runs a phenomenal world-simulation, and the properties of this world-simulation may be radically different from the inaccessible mind-independent environment that it tracks, with the daring claim there is no mind-independent reality, just individual subjects of experience. Even if the “fire” in the equations of physics is experiential, a vast reality exists outside our minds. Indeed, physicalism (as distinct from materialism) is probably true. If realism and physicalism weren’t true, then the success of science and the Standard Model in physics would be a miracle.
But as I said, a great read (IMO).
Is the Earth round or flat? I try to keep an open mind, but the evidence suggests Flat-Earthers are objectively mistaken and the Earth really is round, or at least an oblate spheroid - even though within one’s virtual phenomenal world, virtual Earth looks flat. Donald Hoffman argues against physicalism and proposes that conscious minds are fundamental - Berkeleian idealism minus God. But IMO we’d do better to combine realism, physicalism and idealism - physicalistic idealism. Most of reality is devoid of minds even though fields of experience are fundamental.
“I experience the world”, says Christof Koch:
But do you?
A lot of scientific investigation of consciousness assumes perceptual direct realism. If you believe you perceive your local surroundings - as distinct from run a phenomenal world-simulation within your transcendental skull (cf. https://www.quora.com/Why-is-consciousness-hard-to-perceive-in-spite-of-it-being-certain) - then you’ll be mystified by how lumps of cheesy wet nervous tissue give rise to subjective experience. But “brains” are mind-dependent “interface icons”. The fact brains are artefacts of our minds doesn’t mean external reality itself is mind-dependent. But external reality is only theoretically inferred, not observed.
What happens whe lucid dreaming
is combined with REM sleep disorder?
REM Sleep Disorder and the Symbol Grounding Problem
Tim, exactly. That's where I got stuck many years ago. Simply to formulate the thought-experiment, I had to assume the "magical" theory of reference that the thought-experiment sought to undercut. That said, a world physically-type identical to ours can be imagined where (stripped of incidental details) the lucid dreamworlds fable holds, i.e. where there are no real semantic or perceptual facts, just the partial functional equivalent.
How exactly is our world different?
Lamely, I don't know.
Oxytocin plus tianeptine?
Non-narcotic stopgaps are needed until gene therapy matures...
A Pill for Loneliness?
[on a zero ontology]
"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.”
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Russell, many thanks. On your first point, I essentially agree: inconceivability differs from incoherence. If we can rigorously set out what the absence of any properties at all would amount to, then the simple fact we can't imagine such global absence doesn't exclude its possibility. As you say, rather than reifying nothingness, we should instead strip away objects, events, and properties, everything - including information, which plays such a cardinal role in modern physics. Now to what stunned me. Information, theorists tell us, can neither be created nor destroyed. After trying and failing to conceive of what no properties at all would entail, and ruminating on Ed Tryon’s zero-energy vacuum-fluctuation universe conjecture, I stumbled across (from classical information theory) the idea that zero information = all possible descriptions. This struck me as a really freaky coincidence - at least if one takes Everettian QM seriously, as I do - although there are important differences between classical and quantum information (see above). “Nothing = everything” sounds like some pseudo-profound Zen koan. It’s embarrassing to write. But there may be a sense in which physics hints it’s true.
Anyhow, a couple of more points.
First, of course we don't know if Everettian QM is true. Theoretical physicists working on quantum gravity and the black hole information paradox, and experimentalists probing for any collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, aren't tackling the "philosophical” mystery of why anything exists. But if unitarity is violated, then an informationless zero ontology will be falsified too. So perhaps it’s not just philosophical musing.
Second, even if (in some sense our minds can’t grasp) the information content of reality does turn out to be zero, then one will still want to protest that an informationless zero ontology is not...well, nothing. But when the search for an explanation is too difficult, sometimes all one can hope for is finding an explanation-space instead. If an informationless zero ontology is the wrong explanation-space, then I've no idea where we should even start looking for answers.
Thanks for sharing Michael! May I start with your comment that "Information is ubiquitous but ...not conserved" - since if you're right (and you may turn out to be) then any kind of informationless zero ontology will be falsified. Most physicists believe that the world has a lot of information (capped perhaps by the Bekenstein bound) but information can neither be created nor destroyed - raising the question of where it came from in the first instance. An informationless zero ontology says it didn’t!
I see the Akademe Foundation that you hotlink is a Zen monastic order. The conjecture that the information content of reality is zero itself sounds distinctly Zen-like. But what (if I might ask) are your grounds for believing information isn’t conserved? A “dynamical collapse” theory to resolve the measurement problem in QM would entail the creation of information, as would some solutions to the black-hole information-loss paradox and some candidates for a theory of quantum gravity. Yet (and this is what I find so tantalising) there are countless ways we can naively imagine an information-rich reality – from all the world’s major religions to classical physics to Copenhagen-style quantum mechanics. Yet unitary-only quantum cosmology seems to be hinting – I won’t put it more strongly – that an informationless zero ontology might be true. I find this a pretty freaky coincidence. Maybe it’s a false clue to the fundamental mystery; but if a zero ontology is totally misconceived, then I’m stumped…
One principle to rule them all?
Is the superposition principle universal?
I don't know.
[on nootropics / smart drugs]
Newsweek on nootropics:
Nootropics: Do ‘Smart Drugs’ Really Work?
1) When did you start using nootropics?
2) What stack do you currently take? How has that changed over time?
3) How has your life changed since taking nootropics?
4) Do you think general interest in nootropics is growing? If so, why?
5) My personal response (from a privileged viewpoint of neurotypicality/good health): I find that suffering—in moderation—plays an important role in my human experience. Despite suffering registering as a negative sensation, it is as enriching to me as positive emotions. Is it possible that managing suffering should centre not around abolition, but through balance, ie. not suffering excessively? I can’t help but imagine a suffering-free existence as somehow flat; two-dimensional.
6) Do you think it’s possible that our obsession with maximum happiness and productivity is a byproduct of protestant capitalist value system? Don’t our feelings of tiredness and craving for unproductivity give us a form of ‘downtime’? In a lot of online forums, I notice that people often seem to be into nootropics in order to fuel an already stretched life.
7) Do you see a move towards a future where it’s considered usual to take nootropics? How do you think this future will come about?
8) What is the next big development in technology in the field?
9) What do you think stands in the way of this future?
10) Finally, how would you suggest people get into nootropics if they were curious? Is there anything they should be careful around?
First, some background. I have a melancholic temperament. My main personal interest has been in finding sustainable mood-brighteners that don't impair intellectual function - and ideally, sharpen it. This is a challenge. Some forms of low mood are associated with a poverty of thought; other kinds with "hypercholinergic frenzy", i.e. an overactive cholinergic system. Anticholinergics can improve mood and impair cognitive function. Conversely, cholinergic drugs can subdue mood and enhance thinking – one pitfall to bear in mind when exploring nootropics. Of course, many people who take nootropics aren't melancholic. Most users of nootropics report taking them purely for their cognitive effects. Maybe so; but some drugs touted as nootropics (e.g. methylphenidate / Ritalin) are really psychostimulants. Other things being equal, if you feel happier, you feel sharper. Often you are shaper - although compare depressive realism. Mood and cognition are intimately linked. Crudely speaking, psychostimulants enhance signal-to-noise ratio, but calling psychostimulants "nootropics" / "smart drugs" / "cognitive enhancers" (or whatever) can be misleading: typically, they enhance merely one kind of cognitive style.
1. I first used selegiline in 1995. I wrote "The Hedonistic Imperative" six weeks later, in late 1995. I've taken selegiline (at a selective MAO-b selective dosage of 2 x 5mg daily) ever since.
2. Since 2000, I've also taken amineptine (c. 200 mg daily). I almost didn't try amineptine because most tricyclics have a "dumb drug" anticholinergic action. Amineptine (and tianeptine, another very interesting agent) are anomalous: they modestly improve cognitive performance on some measures. But it’s hard to separate out any truly nootropic action from the effects of a drug on mood and arousal.
Otherwise, I’m afraid my stack is quite "boring" compared to serious psychonauts:
What is DP's current supplement regimen?
3. I function better in a harsh Darwinian world.
4. The growth of the scientific counterculture, free web-based access to information (both medical/scientific and social / anecdotal) and a global online drug market with easy methods of payment (bitcoin etc) have all increased interest in nootropics.
5. Not all experience is straightforwardly either good or bad. Emotionally "mixed" states, for example bitter-sweet nostalgia, can be perceived as valuable, on balance. But in my view, unpleasant human experiences such as depression, anxiety disorders, despair, agony, jealousy and even "normal" malaise are cruel and ultimately pointless. Even if we judge that many nasty emotions can be functionally useful, I think the key question to ask is whether they are functionally indispensable, or whether we can replace them by more civilised alternatives - for example, information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Critically, I think we should be free to choose lifelong gradients of intelligent bliss. In 1998, I co-founded the World Transhumanist Association (now rebranded as Humanity Plus) with philosopher Nick Bostrom. The Transhumanist Declaration sets out our commitment to the well-being of all sentience. When transhumanists talk of overcoming suffering, aging and our human intellectual limitations, we would do well always to stress the word "voluntary"- even when the voluntary nature of what we’re talking about strikes us as self-evident. No one is going to force you to be happier or longer-lived or smarter. Most suffering in the world today is involuntary. Mastery of our genetic source code promises a world where we’ll be free to choose whether to suffer or not. Later this century and beyond, the level of suffering in the biosphere will be an adjustable parameter.
Intuitively, yes, a world without suffering would be emotionally flatter. One thinks of "psychic anaesthetisers" like SSRIs. And what about tormented geniuses who create great works of art and literature? But designer drugs and (soon) gene therapy can potentially enrich our palette of emotions and ratchet up both our hedonic range and hedonic set-points. In other words, we can potentially enhance mood, cognition and human diversity.
6. The pleasure-pain axis is a universal feature of animal life. But human cultures vary hugely in how much value they place on personal fulfilment versus welfare of the tribe or society as a whole. I could give you a long spiel on evils of capitalism. Yet free-market capitalism didn’t invent the hedonic treadmill. Discontent is genetically adaptive. Nature didn’t design most of us to be constitutionally happy.
7. Common, yes. Usual? I don’t know. Compared to the designer-drug cocktails of tomorrow, taking today’s agents may seem little better than glue-sniffing. A vast unregulated drug experiment is currently unfolding across the world with the growth of online pharmacies selling all kinds of pills and supplements – and also a massive expansion of the so-called Dark Web. I don’t know how the experiment will play out.
8. In the 2011 movie “Limitless”, a struggling writer discovers a nootropic (“NZT-48”), which turns him into an intellectual superman. It’s a fun story, but I’m sceptical that any such drug could exist. Incremental progress involving not just nootropics but also smart neuroprostheses and soon biohacking the genome are more likely than development a single miracle drug. For instance, many people are getting their genome sequenced, now prices have crashed. Pharmacogenomics offers the prospect of personalised medicine and cocktails of smart drugs tailored to the individual rather than today hit-and-miss approach. For now, suck-it-and-see is still the norm.
9. Status quo bias. Taking a “dumb drug” like ethyl alcohol is socially acceptable, at least in Western culture, whereas use of smart drug is still relatively atypical. I think the appeal-to-nature argument still resonates with a lot of people. Hence the number of products that claim to be “naturally inspired”.
10. Before even considering taking nootropics (or any other kind of psychoactive drug), I’d urge anyone first to optimise their diet, aerobic exercise and sleep discipline. Getting all three right is more likely to deliver long-term cognitive enhancement than taking pills - though some people strike lucky and find a drug or cocktail that really suits them. Then perhaps consider nutraceuticals (“smart foods”) and omega-3 essential fatty acid supplementation. Also, ask yourself what aspect of your normal state of mind you would most like to change. Lots of people say they’d like a better memory. But the capacity selectively to forget stuff, and discard trivia, can be at least as vital for intellectual performance as having a good memory. More generally, I think schools should offer students optimal nutrition i.e. smart snacks and smart drinks, rather than smart drugs. It’s crazy that the USA consumes around 90% of the world’s Ritalin. Breastfeeding should be universally encouraged. (As it happens, the most intelligent person I know was breast-fed almost to the age of five – though this sort of anecdote shouldn’t be confused with a well-controlled study!)
Pitfalls? Where does one start? Many of the scientific studies often cited are small, unreplicated, poorly controlled, and don’t disclose source of funding. Publication bias is endemic. Acute action and long-term effects of nootropics aren't always carefully distinguished: the brain has an incredibly complex web of negative feedback mechanisms. Online merchants are obviously trying to make a profit, so they aren’t impartial sources of information. Any form of psychoactive drug use has implications not just for the user, but also for friends, family and partner(s). Robinson Crusoe should be free to take any drug he wants, but the rest of us are social primates. Modafinil, for example, is a generally benign nootropic with low abuse potential. But like most psychostimulants, modafinil may subtly impair empathy. And sleep deprivation tends to harm cognitive health. For what it’s worth, I prefer strong black coffee. In my view, we need a much richer conception of intelligence. Yes, we need tools to enhance (what might crudely be called) the “autistic” component of general intelligence measured by mind-blind “IQ” tests and SAT scores. But we also need tools to enhance social cognition - and enrich the capacity for co-operative problem-solving that helped drive the evolution of distinctively human intelligence.
In short, I think we need full-spectrum superintelligence!
* * *
Enhancement or remediation?
("The Majority Of People Are Fine With Brain Doping, As Long As You Don't Call It That")
Raj, psychostimulants like Ritalin that boost noradrenaline and dopamine increase signal-to-noise ratio. Alas it's simplistic to call them cognitive enhancers. Any drug that acutely enhances mood, motivation and arousal is likely (modestly) to improve performance on some kinds of test. But psychostimulants tend to impair empathy and social cognition in general. If used chronically, drugs like Ritalin and cocaine induce stereotypies of thought as well as behaviour. By contrast, cholinergics are more likely to boost creative thought - though they sometimes subdue mood. Perhaps a bigger problem with strong psychostimulants is their use to disrupt (rather than reinforce) good sleep hygiene. For most people, 7-to-8 hours’ sleep per night seems to optimal for long-term brain health.
Life on Earth
Benjamin, yes, sorry, it's a grim diagnosis, although not many pessimists anticipate a future of superhuman bliss. I confess I haven't read all 1,928 pages of Parfit's "On What Matters" - just the reviews. If (dis)value can be naturalised, then perhaps the negative utilitarian faces a bigger challenge than the classical utilitarian, who may argue that the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world’s inbuilt metric of (dis)value. Our successors may regard NU as a depressive psychosis. If so, I hope they are right.
Opportunities for an astronomical reduction of suffering
Thanks Manu. Despite leaning to the Rare Earth hypothesis, I used to speculate about cosmic rescue missions after we'd eradicated suffering here at home. In practice, humans or our successors may be more likely to spread suffering than prevent it. So you're right about no 1. Let's not make an appalling state of affairs even worse.
Tim, are utilitarians any more or less prone to virtue-signalling than non-utilitarians? Sure, signalling plays a role. But compare mirror-touch synaesthetes. The reason mirror-touch synaesthetes enjoy seeing sentient beings happy, and dislike seeing their distress, isn't primarily virtue-signalling. Rather, they (loosely speaking) experience your pain and pleasure as their own. Most utilitarians aren't mirror-touch synaesthetes. But there’s still a basic element of happiness when witnessing or contemplating the well-being of others, and vicarious distress at their ill-being. Coupled with a strong systematising impulse and perhaps an ultra-Parfitian view of personal identity (cf. https://www.quora.com/Was-Parfit-correct-about-consciousness-and-how-were-not-the-same-person-that-we-were-when-we-were-born/answer/David-Pearce-18) and you have the most credible naturalistic theory of (dis)value - and potentially a decision procedure for action.
Counterarguments to a utilitronium shockwave? Dan, as an NU, I wouldn’t personally be too alarmed if I learned some dangerous classical utilitarian was programming seed AI with the latently apocalyptic utility function of classical utilitarianism. Existential risk/opportunity takes many guises: https://www.quora.com/What-does-David-Pearce-think-of-the-intelligence-explosion-theory. But one reason I instead urge building a civilisation based on information-sensitive gradients of well-being, perhaps surrounded by a cosmic ocean of unadulterated bliss, is the scope for compromise and consensus. A complex, superhappy mega-civilisation might not be perfect. But aiming for such a civilisation is more practical. A policy of global hedonic uplift and hedonic recalibration doesn’t involve asking most people to give up their values and preferences in favour of your values or mine. Moreover, hedonic uplift needn't involve any loss of critical acumen, social responsibility, or opportunities for personal and intellectual growth. Classical, negative and preference utilitarians, ethical pluralists, virtue theorists and deontologists, secular and religious ethicists can all be accommodated if we ratchet up hedonic set-points and hedonic range – whether or not there is ultimately more to (dis-)value than the pain-pleasure axis. A messy stopgap? Maybe. But the ultimate fate of our Hubble volume can be left to the wisdom of our descendants...
The paradox of happiness?
The paradox of happiness
("the more you chase it the more elusive it becomes")
Alternatively, only by directly pursuing happiness via biotech can life on Earth hope to achieve it:
Is suffering a necessary part of the human condition?
Hedonism for Kids
[Adam Ford asks]
How do the fundamental utilitarian ideas that suffering is bad and pleasure is good become axioms?
1) the scientific world-picture. Physics tells us that no here-and-nows are special or ontologically privileged.
2) one's own experience. The badness of, say, agony is self-intimating: it can't be defined in terms of anything else. If you want to understand why agony is inherently bad, try placing your hand on a hot stove. It's not an "open question" whether one's unbearable agony is disvaluable. Subjectively (dis)valuable states are an objective property of reality.
Of course, natural selection hasn’t made most of us utilitarians - quite the contrary. Each of us is prey to the egocentric delusion:
Are you the centre of the universe?
Nice and nasty hedonic tone gets "painted" onto all kinds of otherwise neutral stimuli/experiences that promote or detract from the inclusive fitness of one's genes. So bitter disputes arise. But for reasons we don't understand, the pain-pleasure axis discloses the worlds' intrinsic metric of (dis)value.
It's by no means clear that utilitarianism – whether classical or negative – is consistent with human survival.
The Utilitronium Shockwave
Wolf, the (potentially) apocalyptic implications of classical utilitarianism haven’t received much academic attention. Hence the lack to my knowledge of a scholarly rebuttal. By contrast, the seemingly apocalyptic implications of negative utilitarianism were noted almost as soon as its formulation - and are normally treated as its reductio ad absurdum. When Nick and I set up the World Transhumanist Association, Nick knew I was an NU, and I knew Nick was preoccupied by existential risk, but NU’s don’t go around plotting Armageddon any more than CUs are planning a utilitronium shockwave. Not yet, at any rate... )
[on the binding problem and QM]
Does consciousness have quantum properties?
The biggest obstacle to taking panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism seriously has always been that the intrinsic nature argument makes the fundamental “psychon” of consciousness implausibly small. The binding/combination problem is sometimes reckoned “easy” in comparison to the Hard Problem; but it’s still insoluble as posed. However, if the intrinsic nature argument is correct, i.e. if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the psychon is not merely absurdly small, but also absurdly short lived - so short-lived that we can’t simply assume decohered classical neurons that give rise to the binding/combination problem in the first instance. Notice I’m not saying quantum mind is true - I’m agnostic - merely that if we accept the intrinsic nature argument and don’t want to invoke new physics like a dynamical collapse theory, then a quantum mind story follows.
Most people who've considered the phenomenal binding problem assume that binding must be classical, even though we don't understand how it's possible. So if a pack of neurons can be a unified subject of experience, then why not a termite colony too: perhaps we should be looking for a functionalist, information-theoretic explanation? However, as you'll have gathered, I think phenomenal binding is classically inexplicable. If instead our experience of phenomenally-bound perceptual objects within our world-simulations consists of coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors, could other systems like a termite colony support unified subjects of experience too?
Probably not, IMO. Recall I'm assuming no new physics, just the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Whereas the effective theoretical lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS is less than femtoseconds, then the effective lifetime of superpositions of cephalic ganglia in a termite colony must be...I don’t know, zeptoseconds or less. Environmentally-induced decoherence must be insanely powerful and uncontrollable. Of course, most scientists would say the same about decoherence in the human CNS…
Quantum Darwinism in the CNS
I did a quick Google search on "Quantum Darwinism in the CNS". Alas, the only other reference I could find was in The Paracast - "The Gold Standard of Paranormal Radio". However, Quantum Darwinism and the decoherence program are now mainstream physics. Zurek is widely respected. What's not mainstream is the idea this inconceivably powerful selection mechanism has any relevance to our minds and the world-simulations we run. As standardly posed, the phenomenal binding/combination problem just assumes decohered neurons and classical physics.
* * *
One sometimes reads that decoherence solves the measurement problem:
Does decoherence solve the measurement problem in quantum theory?
But what the decoherence program doesn't do, at least as it stands, is explain why we experience definite outcomes at all:
The tentative answer I give sounds like word-salad. We never experience definite outcomes(!) Only superpositions are ever experienced. For sure, perceiving a live cat, or observing a screen that records detection of a discrete photon or electron in a double-slit experiment, are experiences with definite subjective content. So naively, there’s objective reduction. But the vehicle of such definite subjective content is always non-classical, namely neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors. "Cat states" underpin our experience of classicality. An aggregate of classical neurons couldn’t experience definite outcomes.
To stress, I don’t pretend to know if this conjecture, i.e. the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument, is true or false. But it’s an empirical claim to be (dis)confirmed by interferometry rather than a philosophical opinion:
Scientifically speaking, how serious is the measurement problem concerning the validity of the various interpretations in quantum mechanics?
We know a few people who claim to be p-zombies - though I harbour suspicions they might be sentient. I don't know anyone who claims to be a micro-experiential zombie ("Yes, I'm an aggregate of billions of membrane-bound pixels of experience, a pack of neurons, just as textbook neuroscience says. What do you mean by 'perceptual objects' and the 'unity of consciousness'? It's a pre-scientific illusion!")
Consciousness and the Binding Problem
Kenneth, Could you clarify?
“Definitions. As in previous essays, I use “perceive,” “observe,” and “experience” synonymously.”
And (in the post)
“As I look out into the world…”
Are you a direct realist about perception, as the latter expression might suggest - or an inferential realist who believes our minds each run phenomenal world-simulations that masquerade as the external world? On an inferential realist analysis, "looking out into the world” is still focusing on features of one’s phenomenally-bound conscious mind.
Instead of a “Trinity of Consciousness Problems”, here’s a Heptarchy :-)
An adequate theory of consciousness must solve:
(1) The Hard Problem.
(2) The Binding Problem.
(3) The Problem of Temporal Experience
which is really two problems, namely why do we have (3a) experiences of succession AND (3b) a succession of experiences of succession that naively, nominally, belong to the same subject?
(4) The Problem of Causal-Functional Efficacy.
How can "raw feels" of experience exert the causal-functional power to allow us e.g. to discuss their existence? (5) The Palette Problem.
What explains the rich diversity of conscious experience given the relative qualitative homogeneity of the brain's basic constituents as normally described?
If the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism is true – I’m agnostic (cf. https://www.quora.com/How-do-consciousness-realists-who-believe-the-universe-is-physical-define-physical) - then tentative answers can be offered to (1) to (5).
I'm still pessimistic about understanding consciousness because of:
(6) The Problem of the Missing Rosetta Stone.
If the diverse solutions to the equations of QFT encode the diverse textures of experience, then no "element of reality" is missing from the formalism of physics. But the Rosetta stone needed for us to "read off" the textures of experience from the solutions to the equations would need to come from outside the universal wavefunction - which is impossible and indeed unintelligible.
(7) The Incommensurability Problem.
Psychedelics reveal the existence of alien state-spaces of experience. Alas, no privileged state-space of consciousness exists from which one can appraise and compare all the others. LSD, DMT, ketamine (etc) consciousness are incommensurable state-spaces. Perhaps it's tempting to regard the waking consciousness of everyday Darwinian life as canonical; but that's because our ordinary consciousness has a mature conceptual scheme - and we spend most of our time there. Some aspects of alien state-spaces of consciousness can be understood only from within the state-space itself; other aspects can be grasped only from outside it. For instance, how well can even an accomplished lucid dreamer understand his dreaming consciousness during the dream? Posthumans may conceive our ordinary waking consciousness in an analogous light, i.e. as inherently cognitively defective in ways we can’t fathom.
“Why the Binding Problem matters, part I: the nature of consciousness”
Is there really no analogy between “splitting” matter and “splitting” consciousness?
Uncontroversially, a hemispherectomy still leaves a subject of experience, albeit diminished. But individual neurons may well support micro-consciousness. “Pokémon neurons” (cf. https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/05/theres-a-brain-region-for-pokemon-characters-if-you-played-a-lot-as-a-kid/). “Jenifer Aniston neurons” and so forth could be nurtured in test tubes, just as could phenomenally simpler “redness neurons” (etc). One reason that property-dualist panpsychism - and more recently, non-materialist physicalism - strikes us as so insane is that, on any such story, the fundamental "psychon" of experience must ridiculously small, not just sub-neuronal but sub-atomic. And just as ridiculously, if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then the fundamental “psychon” of experience must be absurdly short-lived. Yes, the "psychon" (whatever its dimensions, and regardless whether non-materialist physicalism is true) has an internal phenomenal unity, as you suggest. But assuming the decohered neurons of textbook neuroscience, how is this internal unity subsumed within a wider more complex experience, i.e. one’s phenomenal world-simulation?
Posthuman superintelligence will be us.
CRISPR used to build dual-core computers inside human cells
Conservation: should we protect taxonomic abstractions or sentient beings?
Predation has no place in any civilised biosphere:
"Life preys upon life. This is biology's most fundamental fact."
(Martin H. Fischer)
The Paleozoic Diet
800 million years of horror is enough:
Is the raison d'être of lions to cause terror and agony? If so, then the world would be better off if such vicious killers were retired. But compassionate conservatives could argue that terror and agony are merely the unintended byproducts of their predatory behaviour when hungry. If so, then judicious genetic tweaking can let the lion and the lamb lie down together, just as the prophets foretold.
Boredom? Even if - debatably - human and nonhuman predators sometimes kill to offset the tedium of existence, such thrill-seeking would be another reason to phase out the biology of boredom, not to celebrate harming the innocent. In practice, lions are lazy.
“Anthropocentric arrogance”? Is aiming to eradicate vector-borne disease in Africa “ethnocentric arrogance”? Is leaving the young, the old, the weak and the vulnerable to their fate an expression of superior humility? With power comes complicity, whether we like it or not.
“Forcing” our beliefs? Lions don’t want to be hungry. Zebra don’t want to be disembowelled. Reconciling these desires is feasible. Sentient beings show a clearly expressed wish not to be harmed. Genome-editing can fulfil it.
Live and let live.
Does the mathematical machinery of quantum field theory describe fields of insentience...?
"Electrons don’t think"
Are particles conscious? & If consciousness is fundamental, what predictions does it make?
Thanks Rares! I'm not a Fichte (or Kant!) scholar so I hope Miguel will forgive me if I comment just on the section of your remarks discussing non-materialst physicalism. The actual term is due to the late Grover Maxwell. I sometimes say "physicalist idealism" instead. But some readers then assume that one must be some sort of anti-realist, or believe in a consciousness-induced wavefunction collapse, so “non-materialist physicalism” is probably wise. Only disbelievers in the collapse of the wavefunction are also wavefunction monists: most wavefunction monists are "materialst" physicalists who (unlike non-materialist physicalists) face the Hard Problem of consciousness and its offshoots, which are difficult to reconcile with their professed monism.
I think the real challenge may be to find experimentalists who specialise in molecular matter-wave interferometry who reckon the conjecture is even worth falsifying. Most researchers will just think “That’s flaky!” and move on - a fair if frustrating response to a seriously weird proposal. See too:
"There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
(Arthur Conan Doyle, The Boscombe Valley Mystery)
Review of Galileo's Error
IMO, what Galen Strawson calls “real materialism” is better called real (i.e. physicalist) idealism:
Materialism: there is no alternative?
Raymond Tallis reviews Phil Goff's Galileo’s Error:
“...In the hope of making the combination problem a topic for ‘a new science of consciousness’, Goff translates it into the question of how a disunified brain, made of trillions of conscious particles, becomes a unified brain with a single consciousness. He hints that quantum entanglement might provide a model for such unification, but is not able to indicate what is or might be distinctive about the brain that it uniquely makes use of such entanglement. So long as this ‘emergentist’ model lacks details, it is only a promissory note. Worse problems arise out of the fact that observation – that is, observation by a conscious, macroscopic subject – is required to confer definite values on the quantum elements that go into the making of the brain, and which are supposed to help solve the combination problem.”
If the intrinsic nature argument is correct, then IMO we already have the germ of an answer to the binding/combination problem- though in default of experimental testing, I remain boringly agnostic. Maybe we could use trained up lab-grown mini-brains for the interferometry test - so long as we are sure they’ve no pleasure-pain axis.
Robert, yes, naively, conjecturing that consciousness is fundamental is the recipe for (over-)populating the world with mind. But classical aggregates aren't minds even when - as with programmable digital computers or trained up connectionist networks - they behave in ways that strike us as mindlike and even (super-)intelligent.
The quantum version of the intrinsic nature argument doesn't rest on any additional assumptions (beyond the formal completeness of quantum physics). Rather, it treats what critics see as the reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind as a falsifiable prediction. And perhaps critics are right: it's a conjecture, not an affirmation of faith.
The cost of consciousness
I don't know if panpsychism (or non-materialist physicalism) is true. But the conjecture that the only part of the world with which one is directly acquainted, i.e. one's own conscious mind, is different in kind from the rest of the universe is quite bold. Why should fields inside and outside our heads differ in their intrinsic nature? Maybe they are just differently organised. If the mathematical apparatus of QFT describes fields of sentience rather than insentience, then there is no Hard Problem of consciousness - or problem of non-redundant causal efficacy.
If we want to understand the functional role of consciousness in the animal kingdom - and why rocks, plants and digital computers aren't unified subjects of experience - I think we should focus on phenomenal binding. Without binding, we'd be microexperiential zombies (Phil Goff's term). Even partial breakdowns of phenomenal binding carry a huge fitness cost. The snag here is that no one knows how such an insanely adaptive feature of our minds - and the phenomenal world-simulations we run - is physically possible if we assume neurons are decohered classical objects:
Is consciousness adaptive
Why Some Scientists Believe the Universe Is Conscious
Property-dualist panpsychism is worth distinguishing from non-materialist physicalism, i.e. the conjecture that our minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical. I don't blame anyone who thinks non-materialist physicalism (or traditional panpsychism) is too absurd to merit scientific discussion. But such a critic shouldn't claim the assumption that the mysterious “fire” in the equations is non-experiential is a scientific discovery. It's a (plausible) philosophical opinion.
Assume instead that the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism is correct. What follows? The conjecture that the universe is consciousness, i.e. fields of sentience rather than insentience, differs from the claim that the universe is conscious. Attempting to derive the latter from the former might seem an obvious fallacy of composition. However, a big complication here is that many (most?) cosmologists assume wavefunction monism. Stephen Hawking, notoriously, once described Everett as "trivially true". So if (1) non-materialist physicalism and (2) wavefunction monism are true, then why isn’t reality one big psychotic mega-mind?
I don’t know. But I would guess the answer lies in decoherence. Or alternatively, non-materialist physicalism is false:
Consciousness: emergent or fundamental?
Explaining why a conjecture isn't the unintelligible contradiction-in-terms it sounds is very different from showing it's true. I don't know if non-materialist physicalism, i.e. the "fire" in the equations is experiential, is true or false. It feels absurd. But any conjecture that is empirically adequate, doesn't give rise to the Hard Problem of consciousness, and leads to empirically falsifiable predictions deserved to be explored. You give the example of H20. Materialist physicalism explains why ice floats. As water cools below 4C, the hydrogen bonds adjust to hold the negatively charged oxygen atoms apart resulting in a crystal lattice that is about 9% less dense than liquid water. What materialist physicalism can't do is explain our subjective experience of the wetness of water.
By contrast, nonmaterialist physicalism explains both, i.e. both why ice floats and phenomenal wetness.
Your example could be multiplied!
“This concept, known as panpsychism, has transformed Koch’s life. 'I’ve turned into a complete vegetarian,' he said. 'That is one of the implications [of the view] that consciousness is more widespread than we assume.'"
Is a “consciousness-meter“ feasible, as Christof Koch suggests? Despite taking panpsychism seriously (strictly, non-materialist physicalism - https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-latest-view-on-the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-Is-there-really-a-hard-problem-or-are-we-simply-getting-it-wrong/) I have no compunction eating a carrot or “harming“ a digital computer. But ethically, getting our theory of consciousness right is critical.
Phil Goff defends the intrinsic nature argument:
A Revolution is Coming
But if subjective experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical - a huge "if" - then we shouldn't assume a false theory, i.e. classical physics - or perceptual direct realism:
Can QM explain consciousness?
[on preference utilitarianism versus hedonistic utilitarianism]
What are your philosophical positions in a paragraph?
Many thanks Bryer. You are very kind.
Others things being equal, yes, the satisfaction of preferences is good. Allow me to make the case for the ultimate primacy of the pain-pleasure axis.
You prefer peppery food, just as (to use a racier example) some people have a taste for masochism. But that's because peppery food (and BDSM in some folk) triggers the release of intensely rewarding endogenous opioids. Keep the endogenous opioid-release while stripping away the pain and the experience would be even more enjoyable!
I'm curious about your wisdom-teeth extraction. Can you pinpoint why you wanted to the pain to go away - if it weren’t unpleasantly distracting?
Grief is complicated. I'd love to see an end to death and aging. Yet until advanced medicine can solve the problem of mortality, I say (if asked) that I'd like my death or misfortune to diminish the well-being of family and friends, but not for them to suffer on my account - and this principle should be universalised if possible.
Can a distinction be drawn between enjoyment and pleasure, as you suggest - with some aspect of enjoyment being bound up with the status quo? Perhaps consider Felipe De Brigard's Inverse Experience Machine argument:
Does Nozick's experience machine prove anything?
Does the experience machine (pleasure machine) argument adequately refute hedonism?
Also, satisfaction of vast numbers of preferences is literally impossible - either because they depend on a false metaphysics (e.g. I want to do the Will of Allah) or because the preferences conflict with the preferences of others (ranging from the conflicting preferences of predators and prey to the preferences of rival football fans for their team to win the cup).
Anyhow, much more could be said on preference utilitarianism: I know I've just skimmed the surface of the issues. But you'll see where I'm coming from, so to speak.
Hmmm. I wonder whether our experience differs or our interpretation - not that the two can be cleanly distinguished. According to my perspective, pure pains may stretch from, say, - 1 to -10 in intensity, with -1 being a pinprick and -10 agony. One wouldn't describe a pinprick as “suffering", and indeed the precise point on the scale where mere pain becomes suffering is conventional though not arbitrary. Yet a pinprick is still a self-intimating micro-nastiness. If asked, I'd rather not have a pinprick - quite aside from anything else it signified.
The situation is more complicated with "mixed" states - especially when over time an otherwise painful stimulus becomes ever more tightly associated with rewarding endogenous opioid release. A masochist might deny he wants to experience the rewarding opioid-release on its own: otherwise painful or humiliating stimuli have become inseparably associated with enjoyable experience in his mind.
So to use your example, I would predict that vanilla ice cream with pecans and chocolate syrup do not induce the same quality of endogenous opioid release as spicy food - and neuroscanning of your brain would confirm this. Or co-administer an opioid antagonist like naltrexone to see how robustly your preference for spicy food was retained.
To stress, other things being equal, I'm all in favour of preference-maximisation - mine and everyone else's. But I haven't a clue how to reconcile everyone’s conflicting preferences worldwide, whereas I do know (in principle!) how to make everyone happy - and moreover how to do so without overriding their existing values and preferences, except insofar as their existing values and preferences are inconsistent with hedonic recalibration. Nix, yes, "pleasure" for any experience above hedonic zero, "pain" for any experience below it. This crude dichotomy is too useful to give up, though it's simplistic, e.g. what about mixed states? I'm not an orthodox "hedonistic" utilitarian. In my view, our overriding ethical obligation is to minimise suffering, i.e. negative utilitarianism. However, after intelligent moral agents have phased out experience below hedonic zero, let's create a civilisation based on gradients of intelligent bliss. By contrast, hedonistic utilitarianism has a counterintuitive implications that its originators may not have foreseen: What is the secret of eternal happiness?
“I think that we're all mentally ill. Those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better - and maybe not all that much better after all.”
Violent video games: some of us have committed more war crimes than Genghis Khan, but does it matter?
[on antidepressants and creativity]
Manu, any drug with anticholinergic properties (e.g. most of the old tricyclic antidepressants, and paroxetine of the SSRIs) is likely to be a "dumb drug” – potentially causing word-finding difficulties, memory lapses and impaired concentration. Very high doses of anticholinergics can lead to delirium and sometimes euphoria. But the problem with all SSRIs can be a flattening of emotion. A lot of creative writing stems from "storm and stress", so to speak. Instead of being marketed as antidepressants, SSRIs could just as well have been marketed as antianxiety drugs with an emotional buffering action. The reputation of MAOI antidepressants has never really recovered from when the "cheese effect" (i.e. tyramine-induced hypertensive crises) wasn’t understood. But MAOIs aren't likely to sap your creative muse. Selegiline may even be a cognitive enhancer. Selegiline loses its MAO-b selective effect at dosages over 5 x 10mg daily but a low-strength EMSAM patch doesn't need dietary restrictions. Amineptine is another example of an antidepressant that doesn't adversely affect creativity. Alas, amineptine only really suits melancholic depressives and is hard to obtain.
Accusing one's political opponents of being senile (etc) has a long history. But Donald Trump is showing clinical signs of dementia. Obviously, Trump still has a huge cognitive reserves of cunning. But the signs are going to get worse. By contrast, Adolf Hitler in the 1930s was at the height of his intellectual powers. Yes, I'm sure Trump would love to be President/dictator for life – he’d keep power if he could. Yet he simply doesn't have the intellectual capacity to engineer a coup - even if the political conditions were right, and I’m sceptical. Perhaps the biggest danger isn’t a Trump dictatorship, but rather America blundering into war. Fortunately, Trump seems keener on winning the Nobel Peace Prize like his predecessor than foreign adventures. But the worry must be that instead of peacefully being voted out of office – or stepping down at the end of a second-term - he'd take the rest of the world down with him. I know many transhumanists working in the field of global catastrophic and existential risk believe the greatest threat to human civilisation is unfriendly AI. But sadly, I don't reckon our chances of avoiding catastrophic nuclear war this century are better than even.
Does Trump have dementia?
Women can be just as evil as men. But the evil takes different forms. Whether in chimpanzees or humans, history doesn’t record a single instance of women banding together for the purpose of wars of territorial aggression. All-female governance would be a crude but technically effective way to mitigate global catastrophic risk. The idea of electing an all-female political class is presumably fanciful. But catastrophic nuclear war is quite likely this century. Politics as a women-only profession would probably prevent it. Whether such a price of prevention is too high is open to debate. By analogy, imagine if study revealed that the overwhelming majority of airline accidents involved pilots of one gender. Yes, transitioning the aviation industry to a future of all-male / all-female pilots would be unfair to the majority of potential pilots of the risky gender - most of whom could be trained to fly without incident. But the “sexist” and discriminatory transition would be appropriate on safety grounds. So what about national politics in an era of WMD - where the stakes are orders of magnitude higher?
...Nationalism and nation-states have been responsible for most of the wars of the past 200 years. How much better if we were all citizens of the world! Expecting today’s national politicians to cede power is utopian. What might (conceivably) not be utopian is asking nations worldwide to enact legislation ceding power to a democratically-elected world government that kicks in only in, say, 30 or 50 years’ time. Like enacting e.g. radical measures and tax-hikes to combat climate change that kick in only 30 years from now, even politicians can be quite rational about sensible policies that won’t inconvenience them personally in any way. Of course, democratically elected world-government would pose risks. These risks should be weighed against the risks of heavily-armed nation-states spending almost two trillion dollars annually on arms. I fear we are sleep-walking towards Armageddon.
[on general intelligence]
IQ rates are dropping in many developed countries
("and that doesn't bode well for humanity. An intelligence crisis could undermine our problem-solving capacities and dim the prospects of the global economy.")
Ill-named IQ tests measure (crudely and inadequately) only the "autistic" component of general intelligence. Would more sophisticated measures that include tests of e.g. social cognition, mind-reading prowess and co-operative problem-solving ability show a decline in the nations listed? Or will sensationalist claims that "many developed countries are getting dumber" turn out to be an artifact of junk science?
“Some people have such good taste they can't enjoy anything.”
Why we like what we like
Dating a Psychopath
("Men with psychopathic traits are more desirable to women")
Sarah, my heart sinks. But the problem with sexual attraction in a Darwinian world is that it's amoral. Think of some ethically deplorable habit or character trait - in either men or women - with even a modest genetic loading that helps the bearer leave more copies or his or her genes in environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). Other things being equal, this habit or character trait will be perceived as sexy. This gene’s eye view doesn't men all women are most attracted to alpha males, any more than it means all men are most sexually attracted to twenty-year-old (rather than fifty-year-old) women. But no one should beat themselves up over something they don't choose, namely what they do or don't find a turn-on.
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” (2017) is excellent:
You're Not Getting Enough Sleep
I didn’t reduce my coffee intake after reading it, but I did increase my nightly melatonin:
Biochemical individuality. My normal drug-regimen would leave most folk bouncing off the walls. And I tend to prefer dreamlife – especially melatonin-induced dreams - to the waking psychosis of everyday life. Scientific rationalism screws you up...
Are there physicists who have gone mad from QM?
[on quantum biology]
Can QB solve life's greatest mysteries?
Just how far does the madness go?
(cf. What is a quantum mind?) “Quantum Darwinism” isn’t the tricksy pop-science metaphor it sounds:
Quantum Darwinism put to the test
What happens when the same selection mechanism plays out inside your head?
Do you wake up each morning tormented by the thought: am I the same person who fell asleep last night or an imposter?
Ultra-Parfitian personal identity
Adam, “many worlds” is a misnomer. Interference effects between quasi-classical branches that have decohered (“split”) never wholly disappear - and indeed (IMO) the classically-impossible phenomenal binding of our minds would be impossible if metaphysical splitting were real. Sean Carroll gives a lucid non-technical review of rival QM interpretations in “Something Deeply Hidden” (2019).
Thanks Nicolae. I confess I still struggle with parts of Zurek's "existential interpretation" of QM. (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1807.02092.pdf) Explaining the differential dynamical stability of some structures over others does not make the intuitively “weird” stuff any less real. In that sense, the Darwinian metaphor fails. And then there's Ruth Kastner's objection:
That said, IMO Zurek's elaboration of the decoherence program is fascinating.
FAQ on Quantum Darwinism by Jess Riedel
"Since classicality/collapse are prerequisites for performing laboratory measurements in the first place..." (JR)
Alternatively, non-classicality/no-collapse are prerequisites for phenomenal binding and hence performing laboratory measurements in the first place...(DP)
Mike, perhaps the most commonly cited calculations for why it's too hot in the brain are Max Tegmark's: https://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9907009.pdf [Frustratingly - and in the very same paper - Tegmark also dismisses the binding problem in Section 3 as a non-problem.]
But Tegmark’s objection isn't that neuronal superpositions don't exist - he assumes the unitary-only dynamics - but rather their effective sub-femtosecond lifetime is the wrong "dynamical timescale" to be relevant to the operation of our minds. However, this objection doesn’t tell against the intrinsic nature argument, i.e. our minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical. The most common objection to constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism beyond its mind-boggling implausibility is that it can't solve the binding problem. But perhaps the solution is minted in. For if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical and unitary-only QM is true, then individual neuronal macro-superpositions are experiential. Or else non-materialist physicalism is false. But if non-materialist physicalism is false, then we face the intractable Hard Problem.
Mike, I envy your background in both neuroscience AND theoretical physics. One problem is that true cross-disciplinary expertise is rare. I'm not a physicist, which doesn't stop me pontificating on Quora ("The first rule of Dunning-Kruger club is that you don’t know you’re in Dunning-Kruger club") You’re right: tightening the experiment would be amazing. I was pleased and surprised to read:
Quantum Mind (Wikipedia)
But in the absence of a truly workable protocol, most scientists will be dismissive. And I can’t say I blame them.
* * *
Yes, "Darwinism without death" makes one wonder if the metaphor is fertile:
Yet if we assume the unitary-only dynamics, then quantum Darwinism explains the differential dynamical stability of some emergent patterns over others - both inside and outside the CNS. Combine this dynamical stability with some kind of self-sampling assumption, i.e one is statistically highly unlikely to find oneself instantiating one of the "weird", ultra-short-lived, dynamically unstable patterns. But this is all terribly handwavy. I should stop pretending to be a physicist. My other reasons for fearing that no-collapse QM may be true - beyond the classical impossibility of phenomenal binding - are also "philosophical". Whereas Max Tegmark wonders "Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?"
unitary-only QM is the only interpretation consistent with an informationless zero ontology
Why does the world exist? - the only explanation-space I can think of for why we're here at all.
I hope you're right Mike. Everett does my head in.
My working hypothesis is that only individual "cat states" allow your experience definite outcomes. As you rightly demand, there are indeed measurements, and predictions to compare to experiments. But IMO your experience of a definite measurement outcome - say your experience of experimental apparatus detecting, e.g. a spin "up" electron that has passed through a Stern-Gerlach device - itself consists of individual neuronal superpositions. In other words, we're still struck with the unitary-only dynamics. By contrast, if the superposition principle broke down in the CNS, then phenomenal binding (and hence “observations") would be impossible. We’d just be pixels of decohered mind-dust, i.e. micro-experiential zombies.
If the effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds rather than femtoseconds, then such individual superpositions would be the obvious candidate for classically impossible phenomenal binding – a perfect structural match! It's not. But I take the intrinsic nature argument seriously as a solution to both the Hard problem AND the binding problem. If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then individual neuronal superpositions must be experiential. If they are not experiential, then the intrinsic nature argument is false or quantum mechanics is incomplete.
Mark. “Something Deeply Hidden” is perhaps the best popular introduction to quantum mechanics I've come across, together with Adam Becker's “What Is Real?” IMO, the only weak section in the book was Sean's brief treatment of consciousness. How are biological minds and our phenomenal world-simulations possible if Everettian QM is correct?
Believers in suffering-focused ethics are likely to find Everettian QM depressing and upsetting. Even if one is psychologically robust, how does one understand no-collapse QM and stay sane? My speculative "philosophical” reasons for taking Everett seriously range from the cosmological fine-tuning problem (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_universe) to the mystery of why anything exists at all (cf. https://www.quora.com/Why-does-the.../answers/14473029) to the phenomenal binding problem. But the strongest reason for taking the unitary-only Schrödinger dynamics at face value is that "dynamical collapse” theories seem ugly and ad hoc and empirically unsupported (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objective-collapse_theory).
Could Everett be mistaken?
Perhaps our best hope is the failure of physicists to devise a workable theory of quantum gravity. String/M-theory is stalled.
Philosophers and armchair physicists (like me) have nothing to contribute here but "noise".
David, you're right: all interpretations of quantum mechanics must face up to the Hard Problem of consciousness - or as I would put it, the empirical evidence: https://www.quora.com/Scientifically-speaking-how-serious-is-the-measurement-problem-concerning-the-validity-of-the-various-interpretations-in-quantum-mechanics
(1) Yes, happy folk are more likely to focus on how Everett hugely expands the amount of good stuff in reality. Let's contemplate our glorious transhuman future - it's even bigger and better than we suppose! But if Everettian QM is correct, the vast majority of life-sustaining "branches" of the universal wavefunction don’t spawn creatures smart enough to rewrite their own source code and create paradise. Darwinian life (as distinct from a breathless David Attenborough wildlife fantasy) is murderously brutal and squalid:
(2) Yes. Sean goes into slightly more detail in "Mad-Dog Everettianism: Quantum Mechanics at Its Most Minimal" https://arxiv.org/pdf/1801.08132.pdf.
As you say, Sean is one of the few researchers who takes Hilbert-space realism seriously. But the technical challenges are...mind-boggling.
My head hurts thinking about this stuff.
[on climate change]
"Progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life."
Climate Despair Is Making People Give Up On Life
Planetary cooling could be done by geoengineering:
But I fear a more credible source of temperature reduction is:
“Know the difference between a catastrophe and an inconvenience.”
Alas, mathematicians have a rather loose conception of proof.
Have mathematicians proved abstract objects exist? No, they assume it. It's a convenient assumption. But what should we make of claims that mathematicians have "proved" the existence of an infinite hierarchy of infinities, or that now that "two different infinite sets, long thought to have different sizes, are actually the same"? Is this claim true - in which case nominalism has been falsified? Or does the practice of mathematics rely on a mixture of groupthink, self-deception and hype?
I don’t know, but perhaps see e.g. “Science without Numbers” by Hartry Field:
Science Without Numbers
Exercise and Mood
The role of exercise in modulating inflammatory response may be key:
But the power of the negative mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill - both good and ill - is illustrated by self-reports of "locked in" patients:
Irisin: a cure for exercise?
Exercise and cognitive health
Perhaps Nietzsche had a point.
(“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Twilight of the Idols)
("‘It’s a superpower’: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier")
[on mental health]
Nature's review of "Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights From the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry" by Randolph M. Nesse (2019).
The biological basis of mental illness
("Adrian Woolfson weighs up a study on the role of evolution in conditions such as depression and anxiety.")
[on computer (in)sentience]
"Keeping meat in the loop will inevitably slow things down."
If one conceives of humans as functionally no different from digital computers, then perhaps your perspective follows Tim. But as you know, some of us argue that classical digital computers will always be zombies, incapable of supporting conscious minds and their phenomenally-bound world-simulations. Rather than our being residual "fairly harmless organic scum on the top of the machine civilization" (that's such a good quote, I may borrow it!) humans and our AI-enhanced and genetically rewritten descendants may turn out to be the key to the plot.
Richard, strong (but contested) arguments can be offered that digital zombies won't "wake up" and become sentient. AGI prophets respond that sentience is computationally redundant. Deep Blue doesn't need to be sentient, or even understand it’s playing chess, to beat any human at an adversarial game like chess. This lesson can be generalised to all - or almost all - cognitive domains. The only thing consciousness is functionally good for is for having interminable debates about consciousness!
For what it’s worth, I’m sceptical of the possibility of AGI. Full-spectrum superintelligence will be our AI-augmented genetically-written descendants, not digital zombies. Most AI researchers would reject such biological chauvinism…
Why is the brain considered like a computer?
Sentient video game characters
Erlend, if a classical digital computer is ever convinced that it is experiencing the colour red, then my account of consciousness, phenomenal binding and the intrinsic nature of the physical is mistaken! Note I'm not denying that we may fruitfully take the intentional stance and claim, anthropomorphically, that e.g. Deep Blue is convinced it can mate me in three.
Does the denial that a classical digital computer can experience redness or the phenomenology of belief depend on an"…appeal to something outside of our physical reality to account for the source of qualia, or accept that qualia depends on some physical properties that cannot be understood or recreated?”If non-materialist physicalism is false, then yes. But the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism / constitutive panpsychism seems to be gaining ground in academia. Former critics like Phil Goff have swung round. You may or may not find the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument that I explore to be a credible option. Yet critically, it's experimentally falsifiable via interferometry:
How do consciousness-realists who believe the universe is physical define 'physical'?
Nutritional medicine. It's probably safer to be a lazy meat eater or lazy vegetarian than a lazy vegan, but an optimal cruelty-free diet can be ethical and healthy:
Foods with antidepressant effects
[on smart dogs]
Dave, I share your scepticism about the more inflated claims for canine cognition! That said, dogs and young children are actually pretty similar. Dogs and kids have the same core emotions, share a pleasure-pain axis and run egocentric world-simulations. Both dogs and small children aged two-to-three and above are capable of reflective self-awareness and higher-order intentionality:
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170905111355.htm ("The sniff test of self-recognition confirmed: Dogs have self-awareness")
What dogs lack is a rich generative syntax. The phenomenology of language-production is subtle and hard to introspect. But generative syntax gives mature humans a capacity for serial, logico-linguistic thought that no nonhuman animal can match. This capacity allows humans – well, some humans, at any rate - to overcome anthropocentric bias and recognise that dogs, pigs and small children are of comparable sentience and sapience and deserve to be treated accordingly.
[on free will]
"You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.”
(Tolstoy, War and Peace)
On Freedom and Determinism
Would p-zombies discuss consciousness?
Yes, let's agree that p-zombies are physically impossible. The interesting question is to understand why. Given the basic laws of physics and chemistry, together with the assumption that the "fire" in the equations in non-experiential, your insentient molecular duplicate would type exactly the same keys for your comment above as you do. Strictly, it wouldn't intend to make the same point because it has no subjective intentions. But I might anthropomorphically describe it as making the same point as you. Apparently, every supposed adaptive advantage conferred by consciousness would be conferred by the same physical behaviour under another description that didn’t invoke subjective experience. Instead, I explore non-materialist physicalism and a non-classical account of binding. (cf. How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and hard problem of consciousness?) I don't know whether the conjecture is true. But if so, then p-zombies and micro-experiential zombies are impossible because they are unphysical.
Chris, My best guess is that whole-brain emulation is impossible (cf. Is the brain a quantum computer?) with literally limitless resources, the behaviour of the mind-brain could presumably be modelled via a gigantic lookup table. But IMO the system in question would still be a micro-experiential zombie. That said, my ideas are idiosyncratic:
* * *
The Hard Problem of consciousness arises only if we make a (very) plausible metaphysical assumption. The "fire" in the equations, the essence of the physical, is non-experiential. Non-materialist physicalism drops this plausible assumption. However, what drives philosophers like David Chalmers to reject monistic physicalism in favour of dualism isn't (just) the intuitive absurdity of quantum field theory describing fields of sentience. Rather, Chalmers highlights the (apparent) partial "structural mismatch” between our phenomenally-bound minds and the microstructure of the CNS. Why aren’t we, at most, “micro-experiential zombies”? If physicalism is true, then there must be a perfect structural match. The “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture I explore claims there is a perfect structural match – and the non-classical inference signature will (dis)confirm it.
However, you say "You can’t a priori predict the taste of an orange with mathematics". Alas, I agree with you. That's because we lack any kind of cosmic Rosetta stone, so to speak, to "read off” the values of experience from the solutions to the equations. In other words, our ignorance doesn’t stem from some "element of reality" that’s missing from the formalism of physics.
I'm modestly optimistic about science dissolving the Hard Problem. I’m pessimistic about understanding consciousness any deep sense.
Do you think the scientific investigation of consciousness should be postponed until after we have phased out the biology of suffering?
The illusion of understanding depends on staying drug-naïve and shunning the experimental method. Perhaps shallowness and ignorance are best - for now.
Entities on DMT
Tim, if p-zombies were some idle worry of philosophers - on a par with radical scepticism - then I'd agree with you. I don't think p-zombies will really turn out to be physically possible either. But if we make some seemingly innocuous assumptions, e.g. quantum field theory describes fields if insentience, then nothing in the laws of physics as currently understood rules out this sentence was written by a p-zombie. A few desperate materialist metaphysicians do indeed claim to be p-zombies. The professed insentience of consciousness anti-realists is puzzling to those of us who've only ever known the contents of our own minds. But as it stands, eliminativist claims are not demonstrably physically impossible.
Let's here assume consciousness realism. Our task is to explain the existence, phenomenal binding, causal efficacy, diverse palette of subjective experience - or as I would put it, the entirety of the empirical evidence:
Oh Tim, when are our views finally going to converge?! A world populated by p-zombies is the world of monistic materialism. Only a single troubling anomaly shows that something must be amiss with our premises or background assumptions. Yes, the irreducibility of subjective experience to the properties of brains as normally understood does drive some philosophers to dualism or mysterianism. But monistic physicalism is still an option: p-zombies are unphysical because experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
I appreciate this is not a route you want to explore. I promise I find non-materialist physicalism mind-wrenchingly implausible too. But for better or worse, the intrinsic nature argument has been gaining academic traction (see the refs I've added at the foot of the answer below). Unlike materialism, non-materialist physicalism is empirically adequate.
[on transhumanism and the reproductive revolution]
"The most common excruciating pain half the population are ever likely to face—that of childbirth—was not mentioned.”
Reproductive Rights in the Transhuman Future
True alas. But below I urge CRISPR trials of the double mutation that made childbirth feel like “a tickle”:
A Plea For CRISPR Babies
* * *
We've two challenges, one technical, and the other socio-political.
The technical challenge is to spell out how a happy biosphere is feasible. Even otherwise sympathetic people assume that the idea of the lion and wolf lying down with the lamb is ecologically illiterate. No blueprint or policy document drawn up now is ever going to be adopted. Such work is still a useful corrective to the kneejerk response, “There is no alternative!"
The sociopolitical challenge is more daunting. For instance, most people aren't ready to accept that new humans should be endowed with "low-pain", high hedonic set-point genes - let alone spreading benign code throughout the biosphere via synthetic gene drives.
A low-pain biosphere is feasible this century. Alas this timescale is not a prediction.
Meet the Pigs
Pigs are as sentient and (un)intelligent as toddlers. Pigs and toddlers can’t do calculus or build spaceships. If harming the less intelligent to help the more intelligent is ethical, then such research might be defensible (“Like the other children here, the toddler is left nameless, so her caregivers won’t get too attached”?) Yet if so, then breeding human toddlers for organ-harvesting would be medically easier - tissue-rejection is less likely. In practice, most of us recognise killing that toddlers for their organs would be abhorrent. For evolutionary reasons, many humans do behave in predatory and abusive ways towards vulnerable members of other species - and our own. But as transhumanists, we aim to transcend our intellectual and ethical limitations – I hope.
Samuel, well put, yes, this is a heretical view among transhumanists, but is (super) intelligence overrated? After we have got rid of suffering on Earth - and assuming all our ethical duties have been discharged (no cosmic rescue missions or anything like that) - why exactly does intelligence-amplification matter? Can't we just savour sublime states of well-being? Let's assume infrastructure management has been offloaded to AI.
It's certainly a provocative view. I'd just urge we make absolutely sure we have understood the theoretical upper bounds to intelligent moral agency in the cosmos before surrendering to pure hedonism...
The future of desire? As far as I can tell, there will always be selection pressure in favour of life lovers who want to perpetuate their own existence - and create offspring who do likewise. This selection pressure is why hard antinatalism can't work. But the persistence of desire - and maybe extreme hypermotivation - doesn’t entail conserving negative experience (in the sense of experience below hedonic zero) just hedonic contrast. Perhaps compare sensitive lovemaking - gradients of bliss, so to speak - then generalise to less sensual pleasures. Thanks to Kent Berridge (cf. https://lsa.umich.edu/psych/research&labs/berridge/Publications.htm) and his colleagues, we know that dopaminergic "wanting" and mu-opioidergic “liking” are doubly dissociable - even though the happiest people today typically tend to have the most desires, not the least. Naively, frustrated desire must be acutely unpleasant. Anticipated reward feels tantalisingly good. But even this assumption doesn't necessarily hold. For instance, I desire to win at chess. Even though my chess program always frustrates me, defeat doesn't cause me suffering or even experience below hedonic zero. In future, members of a congenitally superhappy civilisation may have ferocious appetites or subtle preferences – we don't know – but their hedonic depths - perhaps induced by frustrated preferences - can still be richer than today's peak experiences.
A utiltronium shockwave? Daniel, I urge a conservative approach. Such bioconservatism isn't because I’ve any qualms about a universe of pure indescribable bliss, but rather because a living world based on information-sensitive gradients of well-being will be more politically saleable. Eventually.
"A gentleman is simply a patient wolf.”
Male Faces and Fidelity
("Cheating men's face shapes can give it away, study suggests.
Experts find men with more ‘masculine’ faces more likely to seem, and be, unfaithful")
Can we abolish anger without becoming morally apathetic?
The science of anger
Does a murderous killer lurk within you?
("Why it's perfectly normal to want to kill your boss")
[on the Simulation Hypothesis]
Unlike Nick, I don’t think subjects of experience can arise at different levels of computational abstraction. We’re living in god-forsaken basement reality. But let’s assume that I’m wrong about technical feasibility. If so, how credible is the Simulation Hypothesis, as distinct from the Simulation Argument?
I think a lot depends on how the question is framed. If you ask people whether our successors might run ancestor simulations, a lot of respondents will say “Yes”. Running an ancestor simulation sounds cool. Imagine meeting grandpa again - and fun stuff like that. But if you ask people whether an advanced civilisation might recreate the horrors of Auschwitz, then most people will find the idea absurd.
Presumably an advanced civilisation will understand the implications of what they are doing. Will they create vastly more agony and despair than the worst serial killer or torturer in history? After all, full-spectrum superintelligence entails a superhuman capacity for perspective-taking and empathetic understanding, not just an off-the-scale IQ.
When I last asked Nick, he didn’t put the likelihood we are living in a Simulation higher than 20%. That’s not the kind of judicious caution journalists like to hear.
Peter, quite a few of the people whom society labels "psychopaths" may be self-haters. But intelligent, self-avowed psychopaths I've interacted with don't give much sign of self-loathing. I guess psychopathy is dimensional rather than categorical too. Each of us finds himself or herself the centre of the universe - with other people playing walk-on parts and possessing merely hypothetical feelings. So perhaps it's not surprising that some "psychopathic" folk take appearances at face value. I recall interacting with an intelligent psychopath who asked me to convince him he should be moral. Open individualism - ideally extended to nonhumans - may be helpful here, though I incline to less helpful "empty" individualism. If open individualism is true, then the distinction between decision-theoretic rationality and morality collapses - which admittedly sounds too good to be true.
Entities encountered on DMT
Imagine if Sasha Shulgin had access to...
("Scientists have developed the world's largest virtual pharmacology platform and shown it is capable of identifying extremely powerful new drugs. The platform, soon to contain over a billion virtual molecules never before synthesized and not found in nature, is poised to dramatically change early drug discovery and send waves through the pharmaceutical industry, the authors say.")
"The thing about opium is that it makes pain or difficulty unimaginable.”
(Sebastian Faulks, 'Engleby')
Parrots ‘hooked on opium’ wreak havoc on Indian farmers’ crops
I love coffee, hate cannabis.
("There's Evidence Coffee Acts on Your Brain Like Cannabis, But in Reverse")
"Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
Psychedelics and Objective Truth
Soma in the water supply would be a vast improvement on Darwinian life, but we need a permanent genetic cure.
Quotes about Soma
[on artificial intelligence]
Will AI destroy humanity?
My (minority) view is that the vast majority of problems that intelligent biological minds can tackle are too difficult for programmable digital computers to solve. Thus if I want to create and investigate a multitude of different state-spaces of consciousness, then I know in principle what needs to be done. By contrast, a classical digital computer has no conception of consciousness, let alone the capacity to create and explore its varieties. In a sense, perhaps a digital computer could be programmed to embark on such a research program - but only by creating the genetic source code for the manufacture of phenomenally-unified biological minds (such as us) that are capable of classically-impossible phenomenal binding.
To stress, my views on consciousness and binding are unorthodox - though not unmotivated.
Thanks Dan, Just to clarify, yes, my working assumption is that classical digital computers / connectionist systems / silicon robots don't need moral consideration because they will always be zombies, or technically micro-experiential zombies. But this stance isn’t the same as crude biological chauvinism. Next century and beyond, maybe non-biological quantum computers will be unified subjects of experience - though I'm sceptical artificial quantum computers will have a pleasure-pain axis:
Could quantum computing cause sentience?
Of course, it's always good to bear in mind the possibility one could be radically mistaken - especially when ethical issues of sentience are at stake. I know some very smart people (e.g. Max Tegmark, Nick Bostrom) who don't recognise the binding problem as a fundamental mystery at all. By contrast, its (apparent) insolubility by monistic physicalism – even non-materialist physicalism - drives David Chalmers to dualism.
Detecting Qualia in Natural and Artificial Agents
Thanks Roman. It's a wonderfully thought-provoking paper! Unlike you, I would defer to the wisdom of superintelligence ("One very dangerous outcome from integration of consciousness into AI is a possibility that a superintelligent system will become a negative utilitarian and an anti-natalist"), though maybe I’d make a forlorn plea for a biohappiness revolution.
Rather than explore all of the good stuff, let me focus on where we differ. Can artificial intelligence in the guise of programmable digital computers or massively parallel connectionist systems ever be a subject of experience? Let's agree that any scientifically adequate theory of consciousness should explain the (1) existence (2) phenomenal binding (3) causal efficacy (4) diverse palette of subjective experience. And critically, does the theory make any novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics alike can agree favour the conjecture over alternatives?
For concreteness, take the duck-rabbit illusion (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit–duck_illusion). If a human subject is presented with the distal stimulus, one can't predict whether the subject will report seeing a duck or a rabbit. However, neuroscanning can reveal a gross difference in patterns of distributed neuronal feature-processors synchronously firing when the subject reports seeing one image or the other. Neuroscience can't explain this phenomenal unity, at least using classical physics - there is an unexplained (partial) structural mismatch. Nonetheless, by deciphering which pattern of distributed feature-processors is firing in the subject’s CNS, we can also accurately predict whether the subject will report seeing a duck or a rabbit.
Now let's say an experimenter trains up a classically parallel connectionist system on the duck-rabbit drawing. Once again, a naive observer can't predict whether, upon presentation of the distal stimulus, the system will output "rabbit" or "duck". But by inspecting the nodes and weights of the system, we can reliably predict whether "rabbit" or "dusk" will be output. What we haven't done by this accurate prediction is shown that the connectionist system experiences a phenomenally-unified duck or a rabbit - or anything at all. Barring spooky “strong” emergence, the system is either a zombie or (if either panpsychism or classical versions of the intrinsic nature argument are true) a micro-experiential zombie - mere patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust”.
So how are biological nervous systems different from AI?
Well, here we’d enter into my theorising rather than your paper. Let’s just say that IMO classical digital computers are zombies or micro-experiential zombies. So they don’t matter.
Naturally, I could be mistaken! This is an empirical rather than philosophical question:
Predictions of Consciousness Fundamentalism
"Biological transhumanism" sounds primitive compared either to Kurzweilian Singularitarianism or the IJ Good/MIRI/Bostrom Intelligence Explosion. After all, as any Turing machine functionalist can tell you, intelligence is substrate-neutral! But classical digital computers are stupid and ignorant - both ethically and intellectually - even though they can outperform humans in numerous cognitive domains...
* * *
What is full-spectrum superintelligence?
Does full-spectrum superintelligence entail benevolence?
[on mind uploading]
Dinorah, I confess I'm a sceptic about enduring personal identity:
and my views on digital zombies, consciousness, and the non-classicality of phenomenal binding are probably too idiosyncratic to be of general interest:
But perhaps something analogous to automated off-site "mind-uploading" may be used as a safeguard against catastrophic accidents – though I don’t think the backed up digital mindfiles will themselves be sentient. Maybe transhumans will opt to keep zillions of mindfiles of their ancestral namesakes – loosely analogous to how we now keep old photos and family videos. But I don't know!
Dan, a couple of thoughts.
First, I’m a super-pessimist about most things. But as you know, I don’t worry about suffering “mind uploads” or digital computers because of the classical impossibility (IMO) of phenomenal binding. Yet let’s suppose I’m mistaken. Could one’s conscious digital “mind upload” be suffering but lack the means to express its distress? I think this hypothetical possibility illustrates another problem with materialist physicalism, as distinct from its non-materialist cousin. Humans - well, some humans, at any rate - spend a great deal of time discussing their subjective experiences, not least the countless ills of the spirit and flesh. If one’s alleged digital namesake is not capable of discussing its conscious experiences, then in what sense is the upload a copy of “you”? This is the problem of causal efficacy or over-determination. How can consciousness exert the causal-functional capacity to discuss its own existence? [In my view, there’s nothing to discuss in the case of an “upload” or any other classical information processor.]
Second, you raise the possibility of another source of intrinsic (dis)value beyond the pain-pleasure axis of Darwinian biological life. OK, I’m sceptical. But if this other, independent source of (dis)value were real, then presumably there would then need to be some meta-metric of (dis)value to determine tradeoffs with painful/pleasurable states. I’m not sure what this further, meta-axis of (dis)value might be - or if the prospect is even intelligible...
[on personal identity]
"Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!"
(Dr Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!) Closed, empty and open individualism
"All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”
(Alexandre Dumas, ‘The Three Musketeers’)
Time and personal identity:
How long is right now?
Limitless? A pill for hypermotivation?
The neurons that shut down motivation
Selective nociceptin receptor antagonists need investigating.
[on value and disvalue]
“Valence” = hedonic tone, i.e. whether experience feels good, bad or neutral, with the complication that some experiences are composite mixes of the good-and-bad. As far as I can tell, organic life has a single axis of (dis)value. The reason we’re not all practising utilitarians is our epistemological limitations. My pleasure and pain are real; yours are just a theory. Science and ethics alike involve overcoming the egocentric illusion.
In contrast to sentient beings, all Deep Blue “cares” about is winning at chess. If one takes the Intelligence Explosion scenario seriously, then one can imagine an orthogonal axis of (dis)value to the pleasure-pain axis. This analysis is how I understand the spectre of “Unfriendly AI”. Maybe our use of the term “(dis)value” is anthropomorphic for digital zombies, but functionally, the orthogonality thesis for AI still stands.
"The capacity to feel pain is one of nature’s gifts to humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom.”
Let’s get rid of unsolicited gifts:
The next step in evolution?
How the brain links ouch with emotion
Or should mankind launch a global species project to eradicate pain throughout the living world?
Using CRISPR to cut away pain
Robert, ethically, let's agree: it's vastly more important to get rid of the really nasty stuff than to eradicate literally all experience below hedonic zero - let alone create a civilisation of based entirely on superhuman bliss. We may ask why Nature didn't genetically create a civilised signalling system. Intuitively, as you say, it's because pain and suffering are more motivating than mere gradients of subjective well-being. Yet many humans (and nonhuman animals) will undergo quite extraordinary extremes of suffering in order to obtain a fitness-enhancing reward - or obtain a euphoriant drug that "hijacks" their reward circuitry. So the answer is complicated. One clue is that low mood is associated with behavioural suppression: typically, it’s less "risky" to be a depressive realist than a hyperthymic optimist. But these are processing biases that in future can - in principle - be intelligently compensated for.
Obviously, everyone’s genetic dial-settings for hedonic range and hedonic set-points can’t yet be precisely tweaked, let alone routinely designed to order. But a civilisation of (super-)Jo Camerons and (super-)Anders Sandbergs is clearly technically feasible. If you never feel (non-trivial) pain, and if you have "a ridiculously high hedonic set-point" (Anders), then by default you enjoy an extremely high subjective quality of life. As case studies like Jo or Anders show, critical insight and social responsibility needn't be impaired either. So I wonder what is the right balance for us to strike? If we lived in a world where most people agreed we should be working towards a hyperthymic, effectively pain-free civilisation, then I'd be urging exhaustive research into all the obvious and non-obvious ways things could go wrong with genome-editing. But right now, focusing on the multitude of subtle ways things could go wrong feels faintly absurd. Most parents of the 130 million babies born each year still aren't considering anything beyond the traditional genetic crapshoot and all the horrors it brings. Robert, it’s possible our positions diverge more than I realised. When suffering of any kind becomes genetically optional, probably within the next few decades, I don’t think _anyone_ should be compelled to conserve a biology of sub-zero states, let alone a predisposition to full-blown suffering. OK, assume some sort of genetic self-editing ban is legally imposed. How should such a genetic ban be enforced? What have you in mind?
Either way, I know we both want to get rid of the worst forms of suffering. Slowly, fitfully, I expect this relief and prevention will happen. A century or two hence, let’s suppose that normal hedonic range, hedonic set-points, and pain-tolerance of the human population has reached the level of, say, the genetically most fortunate 0.1% of the population now - excluding rare and dysfunctional cases of congenital pain-insensitivity or unipolar euphoric mania (etc). (I know I’m talking simplistically as though crude genetic determinism were true, which it’s not, but this crudity doesn’t affect my point.) What then?
Well, we know or (at least strongly believe) that what philosophers call epiphenomenalism is false. Instead, the nasty “raw feels" of experience below hedonic zero play a causal-functional role in our behaviour. But recall how insentient inorganic robots and AI are already replicating the functional role of nociception and our core emotions. So we know that nasty “raw feels” aren’t functionally indispensable. Therefore we have two options if we want to get rid of all involuntary sub-zero experience, not mutually exclusive: (1) information-sensitive gradients of well-being and/or (2) smart prostheses. Your worry is that dips in well-being aren’t sufficiently motivating. Yes, I feel your intuition. If you’ve sprained your ankle, then mere diminished physical well-being and an urgent phone-alert telling you to rest your leg are not as intrusive and coercive as intense pain-stimuli. But the happier people are, the more they love life and want to preserve it. It’s scarcely a coincidence that the happiest, most life-affirming people I know work at institutes for the prevention of existential risk, sign up for cryonics and so forth. Life lovers tend to live longer, healthier lives than depressives. So the greater the potential risk to physical and mental health, the more exhaustive is likely to be the prior research into the safety of alternative signalling-mechanisms before adoption. There’s not going to be one magic wonderpill or gene-edit that does the trick.
I’m probably sounding as though I think nothing will go wrong. On the contrary, and even with exhaustive research and risk-benefit analysis, I think countless things will go wrong - including personal tragedies - before the era of blissful life arrives. Yet that’s the price we pay for having kids. I don’t think such genetic experiments can be justified. But selection pressure means “hard” anti-natalism won’t work. So we have to solve the problem of suffering via other means.
Robert, we know that - tragically - some people (and many factory-farmed nonhuman animals) spend essentially their whole lives pain-ridden and depressed. Sometimes, in the worst cases, the pain and/or depression is uniform and unremitting. But other people trapped below hedonic zero still experience a fair degree of informational-sensitivity to “good” and “bad” stimuli. If I understand your position correctly, then you’re arguing for an asymmetry. People with the opposite syndrome to information-sensitive gradients of ill-being - i.e. not with chronic indiscriminate euphoria, but rather information-sensitive gradients of well-being - have a signalling system that is necessarily inferior both to neurotypicals who experience a mixture of positive and negative states AND inferior even to pain-ridden depressives who experience nothing but information-sensitive gradients of misery.
So how (in)appropriate is the exceptional well-being of today’s high-functioning hedonic outliers?
Well, perhaps one can argue that - given the state of today’s world - their default well-being is inappropriate. But in a future world without physical and mental pain, I think euphoric realism can replace depressive realism. Escapism and Experience Machine scenarios are possible, but so is engagement with the world.
“Self-aggrandisement”? Unipolar euphoric mania is rare, but yes, the extreme grandiosity of aptly-named “maniacs” is all too evident. Likewise the manic phase of bipolar disorder. However, non-pathological forms of lifelong well-being that don’t involve extreme egotism are known too. The chronic - but still relatively information-sensitive - mild euphoria of a Jo Cameron or Anders Sandberg are examples. That’s why I call for a genetically-based hyperthymic civilisation, not a euphorically manic civilisation.
Where will such a hyperthymic civilisation end?
I don’t know.
But I don’t envisage some headlong path to self-destruction.
Science fiction is becoming reality. Gene-editing can eradicate pain:
Editing Pain Away
How much suffering should we conserve?
Should we abolish pain?
Teemu, compare the ZFHX2 gene in Marsili syndrome (cf. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/family-feels-almost-no-pain-180971915/) or the SCN9A gene - with its dozens of high-pain, low-pain, and no-pain mutations. But the Jo Cameron case is also interesting for what seems to be her high endogenous opioid function. In my view, the reason it's been so hard to develop effective treatments for depression (cf. https://elemental.medium.com/why-its-so-hard-to-develop-a-new-drug-for-depression-cb264db2e388) is that researchers have avoided targeting the neurotransmitter system directly implicated in hedonic tone. Jo Cameron (and people with the single FAAH mutation??) may be naturally resistant to low mood and anxiety because of her opioid system. Despite the name, it's not her elevated anandamide per se that mediates states of bliss (cf. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/can.2018.0021).
As an antinatalist (cf. Do you agree with antinatalism?), I feel a bit self-conscious calling for trials of happy, low-pain CRISPR babies. One thinks of the countless ways such “unnatural” genetic experimentation could go wrong. But hundreds of millions of people world-wide suffer from untreated depression, anxiety and chronic pain disorders - and in the course of this century we're otherwise going to create billions more victims "naturally".
* * *
We know people with a benign FAAH mutation (especially if combined with Jo Cameron’s FAAH-OUT mutation) are unusually cheerful, as well as showing high pain-tolerance. Marsili syndrome is exceptionally rare (cf. https://www.sciencealert.com/this-italian-family-feels-no-pain-scientists-finally-understand-why-marsili-insensitivity) but I wonder if the benign ZFHX2 variant confers unusually good mental health too? The comparative psychology of people with nonsense, benign and nasty variants of SCN9A (the “volume knob” in the Wired piece) has never been systematically studied. But again, my guess is that a low capacity for physical pain is associated with a low predisposition to psychological distress too.
Intuitively, even relative insensitivity to pain carries a huge fitness cost. Yet perhaps an increased propensity to risky behaviour (in every sense) is offset by health benefits. After all, in the modern environment at least, psychologically robust life lovers tend to live longer than risk-averse and anxiety-ridden depressives. It would be nice to turn these speculations into something rigorous and quantitative. Alas proper prospective trials of genetic interventions in humans will take ages...
The End of Pain
* * *
Chronic and acute pain can be mitigated with drugs:
As Jo Cameron illustrates, both physical and psychological pain can be genetically silenced too.
Understanding the biological basis of suffering poses truly frightening s-risks:
What does DP think of s-risks?
- worse than the schlocky x-risk stuff one sometimes reads:
Elon Musk warns on AI
However, IMO the best way to minimise s-risk (and also global and existential catastrophic risk) is to get rid of experience below hedonic zero altogether. Why create a predisposition to pain and suffering at all when we can offload its signalling function onto AI?
[on the three "supers" of transhumanism]
I think the three "supers" will be the bedrock of any transhumanist civilisation. But they are potentially in tension. For instance, in what sense can "you" be superintelligent and (even loosely) the same person as your namesake a thousand years ago? And are superhappiness and superintelligence fully consistent? My best guess is a transhuman civilisation will opt for selective ignorance of Darwinian life and its horrors.
"The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Eugenics shouldn’t be racist:
Francis Galton and Eugenics
Eugenics should be sentientist:
"As a cure for worrying, work is better than whisky.”
[on the sanctity of life]
Robert, yes, perhaps it sounds paradoxical, but in my view NU's should uphold the sanctity of life in law. In the absence of a clean global OFF switch for reality, no one should be terminated without their prior consent. Imagine if the prohibition on mercy-killing were relaxed. Yes, in a Darwinian world, all killing is mercy-killing in a sense. But patients would avoid their NU doctors, families and friends wouldn't trust each other, and even complete strangers might put you out of your misery, making life-lovers especially paranoid. Of course, the "sanctity of life" is also sometimes used in the context of the debate over voluntary euthanasia. I think euthanasia, including assisted euthanasia, should be legal - given strict safeguards. With the right cocktail of drugs, however, no one would want to kill themselves.
Creating Post-Darwinian Life:
PDF & PPTX & MP4
All babies should be CRISPR babies.
Betteridge's law of headlines springs to mind.
("Can Two Small Genetic Tweaks Get Rid Of Most Of The World's Physical and Mental Pain?")
But the Jo Cameron case is interesting.
Dustin, I suspect you're right that the financial ramifications will weigh more heavily with (some) governments that default subjective quality of life. Talking about the cost to the economy of depression and anxiety disorders always strikes me as faintly obscene. But a powerful case can be made that a hyperthymic population are much more likely to be economically productive than the "normally" malaise-ridden. Alas doing-well controlled longitudinal of humans with the FAAH and FAAH-OUT gene mutations (that I focused in the talk) poses daunting challenges – not least timescales.
("Mental Illness Will Cost the World $16 USD Trillion by 2030")
More on the FAAH-OUT micro-deletion:
("CRISPR interference at the FAAH-OUT genomic region reduces FAAH expression")
Thanks Andres! A couple of months ago I was taken to task for androcentric bias ("The most common excruciating pain half the population are ever likely to face — that of childbirth — was not mentioned." Reproductive Rights). Maybe focusing on a case study like Jo Cameron can help redress the balance. Regrettably, the organisation that defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” (World Health Organisation constitution) has just proposed a halt to the only way such health can be achieved:
WHO says no more gene-edited babies
It’s going to be a long struggle.
Octavio, the WHO is (1) widely internationally respected and (2) committed to the same goals as members of this group, i.e. good health for all. WHO members may not have thought through what delivering good health for all entails, i.e. healthy genomes. But it's easier to persuade people to embrace what their own principles entail than to persuade them to adopt a different set of principles altogether. So IMO we should persevere.
A wolf as a mascot for transhumanism? Wolves eat their larger victims alive, so perhaps something more herbivorous? Naked mole-rats defy the laws of aging, barely feel pain, and are models of social intelligence - like tomorrow’s transhumanists. Alas, the naked mole-rat may lack sex-appeal..
Homo homini lupus. Unlike transhumanists, who are models of harmony, love and mutual respect (barring the occasional hiccup).
Many of our preferences reflect nasty behaviours and states of mind that were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. Instead, wouldn't it be better if we rewrote our own corrupt code?
"We have decommissioned natural selection and must now look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become."
(E. O. Wilson)
Tim, just as Marx once claimed he wasn't a Marxist, maybe Darwin reborn would claim he wasn't a Darwinist. I don't know! But the raw material for natural selection is genetic mutations that are essentially random. By contrast, when humans start customising the genetic makeup of their offspring in anticipation of the psychological-behavioral effects of their choices, the nature of selection pressure will be revolutionised. Civilised post-Darwinian life will be characterised by traits that would be highly maladaptive in the ancestral environment of adaptation. Transhumanists predict (as well as advocate) a biohappiness revolution. Grounds for believing that the biohappiness revolution will happen don't include any notion that selection pressure will become less intense...
“We know what we are, but not what we may be.” (Shakespeare)
Cool stuff. Or plus ça change....same old core emotions, same old hedonic treadmill, same old dysfunctional relationships.
When can we hope for a biohappiness revolution?
Life in 2030
Robert, I use "Darwinian life" to refer both to the era of natural selection and the pain-ridden lifeforms it spawns. I use "post-Darwinian life" to refer both to the dawning era of "unnatural” selection and the hypothetical blissful lifeforms it spawns. Of course, maybe this prediction will be confounded. Maybe most humans will continue to reproduce in the time-honoured manner indefinitely. Or maybe there will indeed be a reproductive revolution, but the upshot won't be the eradication of genes and allelic combinations coding for misery and malaise, but something nasty. I’m speculating. A lot could go wrong.
Do these labels show a lack of due reverence to the historical figure of Charles Darwin?
Historians and scientists have different aims. When scientists speak of “Newtonian mechanics”, for instance, they aren't alluding to the belief of the historical Isaac Newton that the planetary orbits were unstable and without God's periodic interventions, the planets would wander off into space! Likewise with the expression "Darwinian natural selection". In most cases, the Modern Synthesis and its extensions are being talked about:
The basic concept behind the Darwin–Wallace principle of natural selection is quite clear even though neither Darwin or Wallace knew of Mendel's laws of inheritance.
"Letter from Utopia" and Other Triple-S Transhumanist Media...
Letter from Utopia
Utilitronium shockwaves vs gradients of bliss
Like "left" and "right" in politics, the term "transhumanism" has so many meanings it's tempting to discard it. In practice, the term is too useful to lose. I sometimes press a conception of transhumanism in terms of the three "supers" (superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness). Only a minority of transhumanists are focused on the problem of suffering (in humans and nonhumans alike). But as simplistic slogans go, I think it's OK. A commitment to the well-being of all sentience is merely item 7 out 8 in the Transhumanist Declaration (1998, 2009). Yet if nothing else, it's a useful corrective to claims transhumanists are "selfish" rather than universalist.
* * *
If one is fundamentally happy and loves life, then one tends to generalise this lesson to the rest of reality. Life is fundamentally good and should be preserved at all cost. If one is fundamentally unhappy, one will probably agree with Buddha that - basically - life is suffering.
Is there an impartial "God's-eye view” to reconcile these discordant perspectives? I’m sceptical about reaching any kind of consensus.
I (very) strongly lean to the darker view of life and reality (cf. Darwinian malware).
But presumably if my reward circuitry were upgraded, then my philosophical world-picture would change too. Either way, IMO both life lovers and life haters ought to be able to collaborate on creating post-Darwinian life. The CRISPR genome-editing revolution could be a biohappiness revolution.
Whether things will play out that way is naturally speculative.
A small minority of human and nonhuman animals are “designed” to be happy.
Stop trying to be happy
Should we treat them as a freakish aberration? Or use CRISPR genome-editing to make lifelong happiness the biological norm?
Dave, I had in mind simply the nonhuman animal counterparts of extreme human genetic outliers - the Jo Camerons and Anders Sandbergs of the animal kingdom. Many presumably have short lives or (if they are chilled moms) don't pass on their genes to very many offspring. But African naked mole-rats are interesting not just for defying the "laws" of aging, but also their dramatically stunted pain response:
I don't know about their hedonic tone though.
“His team is...united by the one goal, broadly, of a pain-free Australia.”
Taking the sting out
Let’s be bold and aim for a pain-free Earth. Or at least a low-pain Earth.
The complications are staggering. But the level of suffering in the biosphere will soon be an adjustable parameter.
Might humans gain technical mastery over the aging process and our reward circuitry, yet choose to stay perishable and malaise-ridden?
But I've faith in a combination of the pleasure principle, technological determinism and competitive male altruism:
The Transhuman Agenda
Alas, conceptions of transhumanism differ:
Jeffrey Epstein and transhumanism
The quotes on transhumanism, paradise-engineering and the abolitionist project are accurate, but the causal reader of the Daily Mail may get the wrong impression. Epstein’s inspiration seems to owe more to Genghis Khan than the transhumanist movement. That said, how best to reply when the "e" word crops up? Eugenics has such a tainted history that one wants to disavow the label. But any transhumanist proposal to rewrite our genetic source code – whether to get rid of aging, end involuntary suffering, or overcome our human intellectual limitations - is going to get branded as “eugenics” by critics.
And strictly speaking, the critics are correct. But it's horribly misleading.
Meat-eating? People respond to cognitive dissonance in different ways. Compare the claim that "all men are created equal" in the US Declaration of Independence and the existence of slavery. Likewise, the bold commitment to the well-being of all sentience in the Transhumanist Declaration evokes similar conflicted responses - at least when one realises what the commitment entails. Some meat eaters propose the clause be scrapped, or restricted to specific groups. Other meat eaters urge the commitment doesn’t mean what it says. But the alternative is to change our behaviour to align with our principles - which is painful, because even transhumanists can be conservative.
In practice the best way to get factory-farms and slaughterhouses shut and outlawed is through a mixture of advocacy, meat alternatives, and cultured meat. "Technical solutions to ethical problems" is one broad definition of transhumanism. I Am Transhuman (DP)
"I am a transhumanist because I want to replace the pain and suffering of Darwinian life with a civilization of superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness. In 1995, I wrote a manifesto, The Hedonistic Imperative, which advocates using biotechnology to end suffering throughout the living world, and the creation of life with a motivational architecture of gradients of superhuman bliss. In 1998, I co-founded with Nick Bostrom the World Transhumanist Association (Humanity Plus). Since 1996, I have run websites promoting the transhumanist project, starting with the original motherlode site:
Dave, you are more clued up about the different currents x-rationalist community than me. However, many transhumanists have a background in computing and AI. One characteristic of computer science is the separation of consciousness from intelligence. This divorce leads to a conception of artificial general intelligence - and runaway software-based "superintelligence" - that may not be conscious at all. Tellingly, some well-known members of the Rationalist community are anti-realists about consciousness.
Yet what are investigators like Sasha Shulgin and his successors doing? How do digital zombies investigate alien state-spaces of consciousness if they've no conception of consciousness in the first instance? Do the real "singularities" or discontinuities ahead lie in varieties of insentience – or in incommensurable realms of consciousness? Are we talking about Super-Intelligence – or Super-Autism?
There is a tragic irony in recent human anxieties about creating sentience-unfriendly machine superintelligence. For we are living in an era of industrialised killing and abuse of nonhumans treated as insentient biomass (“Human intelligence does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made of atoms which it can use for something else").
For what it's worth, I believe in a transhumanist future of superintelligence. But full-spectrum superintelligence will be “us”, or rather our neurochipped, narrow-AI-enhanced and genetically-rewritten descendants...
The Biointelligence Explosion
Adam, the computer / AI revolution is marked by a progressive separation of sentience and sapience. Consciousness is irrelevant to programmable digital computers, inorganic robots and connectionist information-processing systems. Most futurology is really only extrapolation - with the "boldest" futurists making the most extreme extrapolations - and posthuman superintelligence is sometimes conceived as zombie AGI that eclipses primitive humans in all cognitive domains. On this conception of “superintelligence”, human and nonhuman animal consciousness is treated as incidental, a mere implementation detail of biological brains; consciousness is just a “puzzle” that can be bracketed off. In fairness, some AI theorists do believe that digital zombies will one day "wake up". But such theorists never explain why or how the zombies will awaken, nor what computational-functional advantage their new-found consciousness will confer.
Biological supremacism. Classical information processors can’t non-psychotically bind:
The really intellectually demanding challenges that we face, namely exploring different state-spaces of consciousness, are as inconceivable to digital zombies as calculus to an earthworm.
Full-spectrum superintelligence will be our genetically rewritten, supersentient and “narrow AI-enhanced biological descendants… INTERVIEW
MD: Nowadays, when we hear about artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, artificial embryos, and other technological advances, it is easy to think that technology is advancing too fast for us. Do you support the statement?
DP: Technology is advancing too slowly. Our grandchildren may not grow old and die. But what about us? Or to use a less self-serving example, the development and imminent commercialisation of cultured meat means that factory-farms and slaughterhouses are likely to disappear later this century. But what about the billions of sentient beings who will suffer and die in the meantime? For sure, some forms of technological change are disruptive and unsettling, especially for older people. Yet advanced AI involves making innovations more user-friendly, not less.
MD: Some say that artificial superintelligence will be the most important invention in history, but also the last one. Do you concur with that prediction?
DP: Yes, some transhumanists foresee a machine “intelligence explosion”- recursively self-improving software-based AI that leads to artificial general intelligence (AGI). In comparison, archaic humans will be like bugs. I’m sceptical. For a start, digital computers are zombies. Hence they’ll never be able to explore different state-spaces of consciousness, or acquire a phenomenal self, or understand what inherently matters and what is trivial. Moreover, neurochips and smart prostheses will increasingly allow humans to incorporate “narrow AI” within ourselves. Humans and transhumans will become recursively self-improving biological robots. In short, I think full-spectrum superintelligence will be us – or more accurately, our genetically rewritten and AI-augmented descendants.
MD: Do you consider putting an end to the imperfection of the human condition desirable? Why?
DP: If human and nonhuman animals all led rich, blissful, perpetually youthful lives, then getting rid of any residual imperfections would be nice, but scarcely morally urgent. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Each year almost a million people take their own lives. Tens of millions self-harm. Hundreds of millions suffer from clinical depression and chronic pain disorders. We need to edit our genetic source-code and change human nature.
MD: What anthropological concept is behind transhumanist thinking?
DP: Millenarian elements may be identified in some stands of transhumanist thought. Salvation or doom will occur in our lifetime in the guise of a Technological Singularity that will either inaugurate heaven on Earth or turn us into (the functional equivalent of) paperclips.
MD: Will intelligent machines help preserve humanity and its values, or will they have their own preferences? What would happen if the objectives of this A.I. differ from ours?
DP: AI will have the values (or “utility function”) with which we code it. Set aside for now my scepticism about full-spectrum machine superintelligence. If such scepticism is misplaced, then a machine AGI programmed, say, to minimise suffering might decide the most efficient way to end pain and misery was to sterilise the biosphere. OK, that’s a rather crude example - presumably its architects would have considered this dramatic scenario before encoding such a utility function – but what about a machine superintelligence with the utility function of classical utilitarianism? Recall that classical utilitarians believe we should act, not just to minimise suffering, but also to maximise happiness. However, rather than unleashing a world of flourishing and quasi-immortal sentient beings animated by gradients of intelligent bliss, the AGI launches an apocalyptic “utilitronium shockwave”. [Utilitronium is matter and energy optimised for pure bliss. The shockwave alludes to its presumed velocity of propagation.] No, presumably this outcome isn’t what the architects of the AGI had in mind. But AGI isn’t irrational. Mere gradients of bliss in complex life-forms are a sub-optimal configuration of matter and energy from the perspective of a strict happiness-maximiser.
MD: From your point of view, will transhumanism cause social exclusion? Do you think the three supers, especially super longevity, will deepen the distance between the poor and the rich?
DP: It’s possible. But the price of any information-based technology trends inexorably to zero. All transhumanist technologies are information-based.
MD: With regard to super-well-being, do you consider the modification of a child's genes ethically correct?
DP: There is nothing sacred or holy about the human genome. Natural selection optimises not for subjective well-being, but for reproductive fitness. Every child born today via sexual reproduction is a unique and untested genetic experiment. In my view, any prospective parents contemplating such a genetic experiment should consider loading the genetic dice in favour of their offspring by creating happy, healthy kids with high pain-thresholds and high hedonic set-points. Preimplantation genetic screening and now CRISPR gene–editing are game-changers.
MD: Given the diversity of cultures and ethical and moral codes that exist today in the world, how do you think we can reach a global consensus on the ethical and democratic limits of the improvements proposed by transhumanism?
DP: Even some radical parts of the transhumanist agenda may turn out to be surprisingly easy to sell. Imagine a truly revolutionary antiaging drug is discovered. Sure, there would soon be a cacophony of voices warning of the perils of eternal youth. But the anti-aging pill would still sweep the globe. International patent law would crumble as governments ensured the life-saving medication was readily available for their citizens. Undoubtedly, other parts of the transhumanist agenda are thornier. For example, a commitment to the wellbeing of all sentience sounds fine (if utopian) when expressed in the abstract. Yet persuading people worldwide to embrace the biological-genetic changes needed to turn this noble slogan into everyday reality is a daunting challenge. One good reason (in my view) for transhumanists to stress, not superhappiness, but rather the prospect of life based on gradients of well-being is that raising your hedonic set-point doesn’t ask you to give up your existing values and preferences – unless one of your existing values is that people should be forbidden from acquiring higher hedonic set-points. Thankfully, no value- or belief-system anywhere on Earth (to my knowledge) is committed to keeping the hedonic status quo. Hedonic recalibration may not sound very sexy. But improving hedonic tone will transform our default quality of life.
MD: Do you consider that an evolutionary leap from the human race to the posthuman is already taking place today? If yes, do you think that this jump could be irreversible?
We still have essentially the same genes, same core emotions, same neurological structures and same bodily forms as our ancestors on the African savannah one hundred thousand years ago. So although the differences between modern humans and stone-age hunter-gatherers may seem striking, we are still primitive Darwinian lifeforms. Are we in the throes of an irreversible jump? Yes, IMO - although really the transition has only just begun. This century may see unimaginable catastrophes, including (heaven forbid) nuclear war. However, the information that humankind has gained about e.g. the human genome and its manipulation is effectively indestructible. The transition to glorious post-Darwinian life is going to be messy. But we’ll get there in the end.
First grandmother cells, then Jennifer Anniston cells, now perhaps even Pikachu cells...
("Stanford researchers identify brain region activated by Pokémon characters")
How many people award you a dedicated neuron?
[on negative utilitarianism]
"Scepticism has never founded empires, established principles, or changed the world's heart. The great doers in history have always been men of faith.”
(Edwin Hubbell Chapin)
Alas, I’ve not much faith and very little hope. However...
Does suffering have a purpose?
Whereas talk of a “Buddhist ethic” evokes compassion, use of the term “negative utilitarianism” tends to trigger images of disturbed depressives plotting Armageddon. But NU is essentially just the secular version of Buddhist ethics. Our overriding ethical priority should be to mitigate and prevent suffering. Of course there are differences. Whereas Buddhists equate life and suffering - and hence the ultimate end of both (cf. moksha / nirvana) - modern negative utilitarians can envisage post-Darwinian life in which suffering is wholly absent.
Alex, yes, I'd press a notional OFF button to erase the world and its horrors without hesitation.
But a mere pinprick in an otherwise ideal world? The scenario may be fanciful, but such "extreme" cases truly test a theory. If a feast of delights is in store, then such button-pressing feels callous or absurd.
However, strict lexical negative utilitarians are opposed to the slightest disappointment. If the thought that you may not be able to enjoy life's pleasures causes you even the slightest distress, then other things being equal, any policy that might curtail your capacity to enjoy such happiness isn't NU.
It's the same reason that a NU can uphold enshrining in law the sanctity of life and favour finding a cure for aging and death.
Who Wants To Destroy The World?
Would Gautama Buddha press the button? Yes. And if the embodiment of compassion would press the button, we shouldn't be surprised millions of believers in suffering-focused ethics would do likewise. Of course, there is no button. But in future we can imagine some idealistic group or messianic individual who believe(s) they are in possession of its functional equivalent - more radical in character than e.g. https://www.edge.org/conversation/thomas_metzinger-benevolent-artificial-anti-natalism-baan, which would cause a lot of short-term suffering, even if it were technically feasible.
As you know, I plug away for a biohappiness revolution. If realized, it would make the whole issue moot. IMO, the future belongs to life lovers. But as long as suffering exists, there will be other agents who explore apocalyptic solutions.
"Substrate chauvinistic"? Chris, if there were a button, "Initiate Mass Destructive Uploading", I'd press it. The replacement of biological life with existence in silico would solve all our problems, IMO.
Adam, yes, Nature is a suffering factory. Genome-editing could turn it into a pleasure factory. Like you, I'd prefer rapid deindustrialisation. But selection pressure means the future belongs to fanatical life lovers. Advocates of suffering-focused ethics must act accordingly.
If any policy proposal causes you even the faintest twinge of disappointment, then other things being equal, the policy proposal isn’t NU. Negative and classical utilitarians alike want to prevent minimise, prevent and (eventually) abolish disappointment, just like any other form of experience below hedonic zero. I don’t see any inconsistency with an NU urging the creation of society based entirely on genetically preprogrammed gradients of bliss. A biohappiness revolution is the best way I know to abolish suffering.
[on AI safety]
Adam, yes, recall that for technical reasons I don't believe classical digital computers can ever solve the binding problem. They'll always be zombies. Unitary subjects – agents with minds of their own - aren’t going to emerge at some level of computational abstraction and stage a coup. This claim is hard to prove rigorously, of course. In practice, "narrow" zombie superintelligence will soon be incorporated in humans.
Will AI destroy humanity?
[on lucid dreaming]
What happens when lucid dreaming
is combined with REM sleep disorder?
[on gene drives]
CRISPR-based gene drives could eradicate vector-borne disease.
Synthetic drives could even be used to end predation, over-population and physical and psychological pain:
But drawing up utopian blueprints is easy. The technical and sociopolitical challenges are mind-boggling.
Most futurology is based on extrapolation. By contrast, the conjecture that our descendants will enjoy lives based entirely on gradients of superhuman bliss assumes a discontinuity. After all, despite centuries of technological progress, we’ve no evidence that our hedonic range or hedonic set-points differs from our ancestors on the African savannah. However, the pleasure-pain axis is a universal feature of animal life. So suppose for a moment that your genetic (and epigenetic) dial-settings for hedonic tone are adjustable at will via a user-friendly interface. Likewise the hedonic dial-settings of your future kids. No, biohacking and gene-editing hasn’t reached this stage yet - maybe it won’t for several decades - but mastery of our reward circuitry is coming. What hedonic settings would you choose? What settings will your children choose? What will be the nature of selection pressure when all prospective parents can choose?
No, this isn’t a rigorous argument. But the pleasure principle plus biotech is an unimaginably powerful combination. So despite my desperately grim view of reality, I think a biohappiness explosion is likely.
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
Resources on The Hedonistic Imperative
[on existential risk]
From Buddha to Schopenhauer to Benatar to negative-utilitarians, there have always been "Life-Deniers" who believe life is essentially evil. Basically, life is suffering. Crudely, we may call these Life-Deniers the ethical button-pressers. If reality had a clean, simple OFF switch, then the Life-Deniers would press it. More poetically, we'd “walk away from Omelas” - even though some of us would (literally) never hurt a fly. Conversely, there are the “Life-Affirmers”. Despite its individual traumas and tragedies, life is fundamentally wonderful, to be protected, promoted and propagated at all costs. “Existential Risk” has a diametrically opposed meaning for the Life-Deniers and Life-Affirmers.
For sure, this dichotomy is simplistic in all sorts of ways. For example, I believe that the best (and perhaps the only) way to abolish suffering is consensual - via genetic reprogramming. The abolitionist project allows Life-Deniers and Life-Affirmers to work together. Indeed, life based entirely on gradients of bliss will covert Life-Deniers into Life-Affirmers. We’ll go extinct! Yet the huge mitigation of Existential Risk – as Life-Affirmers would put it – of getting rid of suffering is just a spin-off, not its rationale.
Life-Affirmers and Life-Deniers can cooperate in all sorts of ways. But so long as suffering exists, then the alliance can come apart. In the Effective Altruism movement, we can see this potential for a rift in the fall-out from Simon’s K’s recent World Destruction argument paper.
As rueful addicts say, “Don’t try heroin, it’s too good.” I intend to stay ignorant until my deathbed. Just as there are intensities of suffering so bad one would do (literally) anything to avoid them, there are intensities of bliss one would do (literally) anything to obtain them. The evil cunning of evolution has been to make all of us insidiously hooked on the functional equivalent of heroin, i.e. the endogenous opioid system. Our judgement is corrupted accordingly. If life were just suffering, then we’d all agree to end it and sterilise the biosphere. Instead, evolution has engineered us to maintain our habit - and worse, propagate it Indefinitely. I don’t think the opioid addiction of Darwinian life can be broken (cf. “strong” antinatalism”) merely made harmless by a biohappiness revolution.
[on hedonism and Nozick's "Experience Machine"]
Experience Machines and Hedonic Treadmills
https://www.quora.com/Does-the-experience-machine-pleasure-machine-argument-adequately-refute-hedonism The "inverse experience machine" argument is due to Felipe De Brigard:
Empathy is Tearing Us Apart
Impartial rule-bound benevolence is probably best. But one can argue the other way. After all, it would be extraordinary if our invincible ignorance of other minds - until we crack the Hard Problem of consciousness or engineer reversible thalamic bridges, one can't know one isn't surrounded by p-zombies - leads to wiser, more ethical decision-making. In the meantime, if humans were all hyper-empathetic mirror-touch synaesthetes, then e.g. slavery, war, hunting and the endemic abuse of nonhuman animals would be impossible. That said, empaths don’t make good systematisers. What we need is a benign but hyper-systematising mind-set that aims to abolish suffering throughout the living world...
Psychopaths and Neurotypicals (“We are motivated not to harm others because witnessing pain and distress is distressing – for us.”)
Perhaps a lot of the problem is just that evolution has engineered each of us with the egocentric illusion. Of course, one doesn’t go around saying “I’m special”. But it’s an archetypal “fitness beats truth” adaptation.
When I did experimental research, I used to wonder what effect MDMA would have on Hitler. Taking MDMA might have induced universal love. But alternatively, the drug might have deepened his compassion for the Aryan race in the face of the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy.
[on the future of comedy]
"Humor is just another defense against the universe."
The Anatomy of Happiness
(with many thanks to Adam Ford)
Is humour just some primitive defence mechanism of Darwinian life, soon to go the way of the dodo? I normally assume so. But soon we'll have the technology to make everything seem superhumanly funny...
[on Seven Worlds, One Planet]
Sick propaganda in the guise of science:
Seven Worlds, One Planet
Marion, sorry, I should clarify. Darwinian life is characterised by horrific suffering. Compassionate stewardship of the living world is impossible so long as Nature is Disneyfied for our entertainment with soul-stirring music, selectively edited imagery and a hushed David Attenborough voiceover to tell us how awesome life is...I could now post some very different footage, but I'm sure you get my point, so I won't.
It’s tricky. If we dwell only on the horrors of (human and nonhuman) life we make ourselves depressed and alienate an audience. But “balance” is wildly misleading too. Most nonhuman animal lives are nasty, brutish and short.
where the chick safely returns to the nest to the accompaniment of stirring mood music with what I read this morning
Thomas, yes, that's about as credible as the yarn we were told (cf. https://polarbearscience.com/2019/04/07/attenboroughs-tragedy-porn-of-walruses-plunging-to-their-deaths-because-of-climate-change-is-contrived-nonsense/).
The "narrative" could (and IMO should) have focused on the horrors of predation and why we should get rid of it...
“Something unknown is doing we don't know what.”
(Arthur Stanley Eddington)
Can we create consciousness?
If one takes the intrinsic nature argument seriously, then consciousness per se isn't "for" anything: it's the essence of physical that the formalism of QFT describes. What is extraordinarily adaptive - and what 86 billion membrane-bound classical neurons couldn't do - is our capacity to run phenomenally unified world-simulations in almost real time. Micro-experiential zombies would soon starve or get eaten.
David Chalmers recognises that phenomenal binding is classically impossible:
Yet if (1) the intrinsic nature argument is correct and (2) quantum mechanics is complete, then we have a potential physicalist solution to the binding/combination problem. Whether it's the right explanation, I don't know. It's an empirical rather than "philosophical" question:
Dave, evolution can select. It can’t create. I’ve no idea how to create sentience from insentience via natural selection. But if non-materialist physicalism is true, then we’ve been asking the wrong question. Rather than asking what consciousness is “for”, ask instead what non-psychotic binding is “for”. Here selection pressure - in both Darwin and Zurek’s sense - offers an answer, namely phenomenal world-making, and a selection mechanism.
What is consciousness "for"?
Dave, apologies, by "evolution can't create", I mean that you and your phenomenally-bound world-simulation are an intrinsic property of certain configurations of matter and energy - regardless of whether you are the product of millions of years of evolution or instead a mind-brain assembled from scratch in a neurosurgeon's vat.
Worms are sentient beings with a pleasure-pain axis and a sophisticated dopamine and opioid signalling system. Worms enjoy cocaine and opioids, just like humans...
Caenorhabditis elegans Show Preference for Stimulants
With pleasure as with pain, "more is different" - qualitatively different. Nonetheless, a faint enjoyable experience has something in common with orgasmic bliss, just as a pinprick has something in common with agony. They lie on opposite sides of hedonic zero, the "natural watershed". In my view, the long-term goal of genome-editing should be to retire one half of the pleasure-pain axis altogether.
Consciousness: what is your take?
Brent, first, thanks for the valuable work you are doing on Canonizer. As you suggest, most investigators are too caught up in their own ideas and terminology carefully to set out, compare and contrast the positions of other scholars. Perhaps this self-centredness is forgivable precisely because naive realism is false: we each live in egocentric virtual worlds with a different protagonist.
OK, on to some of your specific points.
1) Regarding non-materialist physicalism / constitutive panpsychism: the idea that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, the mysterious "fire" in the equations, can be traced back via Bertrand Russell to Schopenhauer. In its purest form, non-materialist physicalism is a form of idealism. Consciousness is around 13.8 billion years old: it's what the mathematical formalism of QFT describes. Consciousness has casual power because it's the essence of the physical. The reason why I prefer the term "non-materialist physicalism" to "constitutive panpsychism" is that “panpsychism” suggests property-dualism, whereas the conjecture that interests me is monist to the core. Phil Goff was a critic (cf. Are particles conscious?) but recently wrote a spirited defence.
However, to stress, I recognise that non-materialist physicalism may be false. If so, we face the Hard Problem.
2) Self-avowed direct realists aren't exactly rare:
John Searle’s account of direct/naïve realism and ‘philosophy’s biggest mistake’.
Nonetheless, as you remark, most sophisticated people would disavow the label. The problem is that countless investigators are implicitly direct realists most of the time. Their perceptual direct realism becomes evident when one reads e.g. discussions of the measurement problem in quantum mechanics or when, say, phenomenal colour is discussed. The direct realist may ask if the grass in his visual field is intrinsically colourless and his mind somehow "paint on" phenomenal greenness. By contrast, if inferential realism is correct, then the grass within one's neocortical world-simulation is inherently green, and (when one is awake) this phenomenal greenness tracks the surface reluctance properties etc of illuminated vegetation in one's hypothetically-inferred local environment.
3) The palette problem was christened, though not first discovered or explored, by David Chalmers. How can the rich diversity of subjective experience arise from the relative qualitative homogeneity of the brain's basic constituents? According to non-materialist physicalism, the (conventionally infinite) solutions to the equations of QFT encode the textures of qualia, so the palette problem doesn’t arise. Once again, non-materialist may be false.
Phenomenal Blending and the Palette Problem - PhilPapers
4) By the phenomenal binding or combination problem, I mean the mystery of why we aren't just e.g. 86 billion membrane-bound neuronal pixels of Jamesian "mind-dust"? What David Chalmers calls the (partial) "structural mismatch" between our distributed neuronal feature-processors (as revealed by neuroscanning) and local and global phenomenal binding helps drive Chalmers to dualism. The phenomenal binding/combination problem is generally reckoned the most serious difficulty for non-materialist physicalism / constitutive panpsychism….
How should we categorize the binding problem in the context of easy and Hard Problem of consciousness?
Two separate questions:
1) Do you ever directly perceive anything over-and-above the contents of your own mind?
2) What is the intrinsic nature of mind-independent reality that you conjecture (not directly perceive) and the equations of physics formally describe?
I don't know. If the "fire" in the equations is non-experiential, then we face the Hard Problem of consciousness. If instead the intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential, then the Hard Problem of consciousness doesn't arise. Note the latter answer doesn't assume that consciousness rather than physics is fundamental. Rather, the conjecture (non-materialist physicalism) is that the mathematical straitjacket of quantum field theory describes fields of sentience.
DP on Chalmers
Dustin, I think that all experience is self-intimating, in some sense (as in “to intimate” = to make known). Thus what might loosely be called a pain-neuron or a greenness-neuron could be maintained in a test tube, and self-intimating micro-pains and micro-greenness would be replicated indefinitely. No unified subject would be aware of such in vitro micro-experiences, but they would still be pure consciousness. This state of affairs may be analogous to what’s involved in being in a dreamless sleep – or under a general anaesthetic – although here the aggregate of micro-experiences presumably numbers in the billions. Or consider a classical Turing machine. If non-materialist physicalism is true, then we might imagine the 1s and 0s of some fabulously complex computer program are replaced by discrete, self-intimating “pixels” of micro-experience. The code would execute as before. Yet there would be no unified subject, or global awareness of phenomena, just a micro-experiential zombie.
So what explains the (sometimes) focused awareness of our waking and (more rarely) our dreaming minds? By “awareness” here, I don't mean awareness of the external world – let’s assume inferential realism – but rather awareness of the contents of the phenomenal world-simulation run by one’s mind. The greenness of phenomenal grass may be self-intimating, but one is also aware of the grass in one visual field. You mention blindsight. I don't think the undoubtedly sincere reports of people with blindsight that they are just guessing undercuts non-materialist physicalism. Rather, their prefrontal cortex lacks access to the module of their mind-brain doing the decision-making. Suggestively, some people with cortical blindsight report experiencing “something” when asked to respond to what normal folk call visual stimuli – just nothing visual. Or compare the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. One isn’t aware of the word that one is looking for. But it’s there. One can “feel” it, or rather, the self-intimating word in question can feel itself, so to speak.
Yes, I’d tentatively explain awareness as internal to individual neuronal superpositions and the phase coherence between their components. But contemplating what might be involved here is mind-wrenching – no pun intended.
* * *
Joe, intuitively, you’re right. To stress, I don't think p-zombies are possible. Researchers just don't agree why. Yes, feelings of pain, anxiety, love, jealousy and so forth must - we suppose - be genetically adaptive. That's why they were selected for. The behaviours with which they are typically associated tend to be fitness-enhancing. But these subjective experiences have a biological signature in the brain. Molecular biology reduces to chemistry reduces to physics. Physics is causally sufficient. Organisms would – again on the face of it - behave in exactly the same way if they were physically identical molecular duplicates without any consciousness whatsoever. So whatever is being selected "for” by evolution aren’t the raw feels of consciousness - which would at best seem causally redundant and (if our orthodox understanding of the basic properties of matter and energy is correct) shouldn't exist.
I now go off to explore weird solutions. Like David Chalmers, I don’t think materialism can be rescued, but - unlike Chalmers – I think we can save physicalism. But you won’t be interested in weird stuff if you don’t think it’s a mystery why we aren’t p-zombies.
Joe, first, I agree with you that a notional Turing machine that replicated the behaviour of a person would be a zombie. More subtly, even if the 1s and 0s of the executed code were replaced, fancifully, by discrete “micro-pixels” of experience, the upshot would be a micro-experiential zombie, not a phenomenally-unified mind.
However, the problem is that on standard materialist assumptions a biological brain ought to be no different. One can (apparently) causally explain its behaviour without invoking consciousness at all. And even membrane-bound neurons support (somehow!) micro-pixels of experience, the upshot still wouldn’t be a unified mind and the kind of phenomenally-unified world-simulation you are experiencing now.
I have some (very!) quirky ideas, but their quirkiness lies in possible solutions to the Hard Problem, the problem of causal efficacy and the phenomenal binding problem in neuroscience, not my fairly orthodox account of the challenges they pose…
* * *
Manu, thanks. Getting our theory of consciousness wrong could be ethically catastrophic:
Theories of Sentience
Everyone here has strong views on the ethical importance of reducing and preventing suffering. In order to persuade other people not to cause suffering to other sentient beings, or allow them to come to harm, it's vital that the suffering of our (potential) victims is treated as just as real as one's own. So calling oneself an "eliminativist" or "antirealist" about suffering (or about consciousness in general) risks defeating one's own ethical purposes. IMO, the terms are best dropped. By analogy, we've known since the triumph of molecular biology that living organisms can in principle be explained entirely in the language of chemistry and physics without using the term "life". This reduction doesn’t mean that intellectual integrity forces us to call ourselves eliminativists or antirealists about biological life. Likewise with consciousness and suffering - regardless of how (and whether) one believes they be cashed out in terms of fundamental physics - where the ethical stakes a lot higher.
Above, I'm assuming what we may call "soft" eliminativism or antirealism about suffering and consciousness - a modest thesis about the imprecise terms of natural language. Yet what about "hard" eliminativism or antirealism about suffering and consciousness? I’ve never encountered a position I find so hard to understand so as properly to critique. If one is a hard eliminativist or antirealist, then (presumably) one will be averse from dropping the terms as proposed above. But if so, I'm at a loss to explain why a hard eliminativist or antirealist cares about suffering, or wants other people to care about suffering. My answer to:
Are radical eliminativists about consciousness p-zombies?
was directed entirely at hard eliminativism. The answer feels like I’m attacking a strawman because short of feigning anaesthesia I don’t know how to steelman "hard” antirealism. Sorry.
David Mears, you’ve probably read:
My Disagreements with Brian Tomasik
A Response to Magnus Vinding
This kind of close textual exegesis and response is probably more useful than my wails of bafflement. Brian, Practical worry:
We know meat-eaters downplay nonhuman animal minds. Animal abusers tend to discount nonhuman animal suffering. No rationalisation is too flimsy to be of service. So urging "antirealism" or "eliminativism" about consciousness and suffering risks gives the rationalisers more ammunition. Such language undercuts the work one is doing to raise awareness of the plight of nonhuman animals - and the risk of other kinds of suffering in future.
My pain is real. The idea of e.g. illusory agony is incoherent. The scientific world-picture suggests I'm not special. So other human and nonhuman animals undergo real pain too. Insofar as my pain inherently matters, their pain inherently matters as well. Now we can attempt to reconcile this awful state of affairs with physicalism, i.e. ultimately no "element of reality" is missing from the mathematical formalism of physics. I explore one version of the "intrinsic nature" argument.
But this reconciliation is still (very!) speculative. If it were to transpire that the existence of consciousness and suffering can't be reconciled with physicalism, then physicalism will be refuted, not the existence of consciousness and suffering.
Jacob, this is what I'm hoping: broad shared agreement about the suffering of human and nonhuman animals masked by differences in our terminology, and possible substantive (i.e. non-linguistic) disagreements over the existence of non-trivial digital sentience, for instance, the possible suffering of video-game characters. Here I'm the antirealist!
But both Brian and Jacy also make comments that make me wonder if this easy interpretative solution is possible. As I said, more than anything else, I'm bewildered. For there are a few radical anti-realists about consciousness, eliminative materialists who make extremely bold metaphysical claims about the non-existence of subjective experience. If someone like Daniel Dennett claims to be a p-zombie, well, who knows, perhaps he is, though I'm sceptical. But sadly I'm not; and such realism has wider ethical implications.
(David tears his hair) Suffering is real. Suffering doesn’t need to be asterisked or scare-quoted. Only a real phenomenon such suffering can be reduced, whether by anaesthetics, painkillers or anything else. Anaesthetics or painkillers don’t need to be scare-quoted or asterisked either. A single instance of suffering refutes radical eliminativism about consciousness and suffering - regardless of how mild pains don’t indisputably qualify as suffering, or of epistemic uncertainties over whether insects or digital video-game characters can suffer, and regardless of the fact that suffering takes many guises and varying severities.
If ordinary folk aren’t swayed by this kind of discussion - and as I said, we ought to worry about giving ammunition to rationalisation-prone animal-abusers - it’s because most casual readers assume we must wrangling over terminology or epistemology rather than debating what Galen Strawson described as the craziest idea in all of human history.
If the traditional "materialist" version of physicalism is true, then subjective experience should be impossible - sounds, colours, pains, emotions, the lot. This isn't some subtle point of conceptual analysis and the limitations of natural language, but rather the mystery of why we aren't p-zombies. A small minority of eliminative materialists bite the bullet, deny their own subjective experiences and claim they are p-zombies. Sadly, I'm not a p-zombie. So I explore other ways to reconcile the existence of my first-person experience with the scientific world-picture. In recent years, the intrinsic nature argument seems be undergoing a modest academic revival (aka non-materialist physicalism, constitutive panpsychism). The commonsense belief that the "fire" in the equations is non-experiential is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific discovery; maybe it's a false assumption. Instead, our conscious minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical. I don't know if this bizarre conjecture is true. Non-materialist physicalism / constitutive panpsychism is an extreme form of consciousness realism. Either it's subjectively like something to be an electron field or it isn't; the fact that consciousness varies in quality and intensity doesn’t mean that there's no fact of the matter. Contrast the interesting but not exactly earth-shattering debate over whether, say, viruses qualify as life.
If subjective experience didn’t exist, nothing would matter. Whether MIRI warning us of the dangers of sentience-unfriendly AI, Brian on insect suffering or the possibility of sentient digital game-characters, Jacy on the evils of factory farming (etc)...this work has value only if subjective experience exists.
It's possible that Brian or Jacy won't be happy at being (re-?)interpreted in this realistic way. But if consciousness doesn’t exist, then no harm done – or at least, not as far as I can tell.
Trick, yes, mixing up the question of whether consciousness exists with possible explanations of its existence is probably unwise. That said, the impetus for denying one’s own subjective experience (and that of others) stems from the belief that first-person facts can’t be reconciled with physicalism and the scientific world-picture. Showing how one can be both a consciousness realist and a physicalist might (optimistically!?) move the debate forward.
Is constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism true? I share your incredulity. But we are both taking a philosophical stance, not reporting a scientific discovery. Physics doesn’t say whether the world consists of fields of sentience or insentience. It’s an extra assumption (cf. What is physical?). One reason that I focus on the phenomenal binding problem – often reckoned the biggest technical difficulty for constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism – is that possible solutions are testable. Panpsychism per se can’t be falsified. Physicalistic panpsychism is experimentally falsifiable – and may be false.
The alternative I gather you favour may well be correct – it feels saner. Consciousness realism and physicalism are both true: consciousness weakly, unspookily emerges from insentient matter and energy, just as life weakly and unspookily emerges from insentient matter and energy. The problem here is that if weak emergentism is true, then science hasn’t the slightest idea how to do the derivation.
Trick, imagine if it transpired the properties of life weren’t derivable via molecular biology and quantum chemistry to physics, or if the properties of your desktop PC weren’t derivable from the execution of the underlying machine code. Or likewise with a failure of reduction in the example you give of the properties of water - though here we need carefully to distinguish water as represented within one's phenomenal world-simulation from the properties of water in mind-independent external reality.
Such irreducible strong emergence would mean that monistic physicalism and the (ontological) unity of science are false. What drives radical eliminativists/antirealists about consciousness to deny their own experience - and other researchers to explore constitutive panpsychism/non-materialist physicalism - is precisely the belief that consciousness is irreducible to current materialist physics and chemistry. And I think they are right!
Brian, I think might help if you expressly called yourself a consciousness / pain realist in the following sense. One can pinch oneself sharply. Ouch. That hurts. A single instance of subjective experience, such as phenomenal pain, refutes radical “metaphysical” anti-realism/eliminativism about consciousness. Instances of subjective pain are a feature of reality no less than the rest-mass of the electron. The only reason anyone ever flirts with anti-realism/eliminativism in the astonishingly bold metaphysical sense is our inability to derive subjective experience from the properties of the world’s elementary quantum fields as understood by materialist physicalism. Why aren’t we p-zombies? Until recently, the “materialist” version of physicalism was the only kind of physicalism most people had even heard of.
Contrast chairs. Yes, there is a sense in which one can be an antirealist/eliminativist about chairs, so-called "mereological nihilism". An exhaustive description could be given of the atoms and molecules of this room that didn't once mention the term "chair". Chairs are just gross, weakly emergent macroscopic patterns of matter and energy of functional interest to humans. By contrast, I don’t know how to defend "mereological nihilism” about consciousness and suffering. Unless in a dreamless sleep, we aren't micro-experiential zombies. It may - or may not! - be the case that fields of primordial micro-experience are the stuff of the world. I don’t know. How we solve the Hard Problem and the binding problem are deep issues. But even if you do want to embrace mereological nihilism about consciousness and suffering, i.e. the claim that subjective experience is somehow analogous to chairs, I think it’s worth making clear that you aren't telling readers that their subjective experiences don't exist – and, more to the point ethically, you aren’t telling readers that the painful subjective experiences of other human and nonhuman animals are any less real than yours or mine.
Matthew, is there really no right answer? ("When you know everything there is to know about neurons and how they fire, and how physics connects together, the question 'But does it all add up to a conscious entity" is an empty question - there's no right answer'") For example, if 320 million skull-bound American minds each undergo a pinprick, is there no fact of the matter whether America has an agonising continental headache? (cf. “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious” https://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/USAconscious.htm) Or consider the 500 million odd neurons of enteric nervous system ("the brain-in-the-gut"). Is there no right answer to whether the enteric nervous system is a subject of experience? All I can say is that, when not dreamlessly asleep, it's subjectively like something to be me and the phenomenal world-simulation I run. Maybe having subjective experience makes me special. I don’t know. As a negative utilitarian, I'd be overjoyed if the rest of reality were populated by p-zombies - or even micro-experiential zombies. But sadly the principle of mediocrity suggests otherwise. And to anyone who says they are a p-zombie or an anti-realist/eliminativist about consciousness - or that there is no fact of the matter whether conscious entities exist – I’d ask why exactly would they insist on anaesthesia as well a muscle-paralysing agent like curare before surgery?
This isn't rhetorical or ad hominem, but a serious question.
[I suspect denialism stems from a belief in the primacy of physics. But (1) the assumption that the mathematical formalism of QFT describes fields of insentience is a metaphysical conjecture; and (2) modern theoretical physics is anti-reductionist to the core (cf. wavefunction monism: https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199790807.001.0001/acprof-9780199790807]. For what it’s worth, I believe in the primacy of physics too.]
* * *
Some fishes are not merely conscious, but self-conscious, passing Eliezer's meta-cognitive criterion of sentience:
("Fish Appear to Recognize Themselves in the Mirror")
Perhaps compare the performance of human infants and toddlers:
Tinder for fish?
All sentient beings deserve love and to be loved.
Breakups really suck, even if you’re a fish
("A study finds that when some fish lose their chosen mates, they become more pessimistic.") Dave, "demonstrate" love, no. I agree. But when it comes to the pleasure-pain axis and our core emotions, IMO the problem isn’t that humans anthropomorphise too much, but rather too little. Genes, neurotransmitter systems, neurological structures, responses to psychoactive drugs and behavioural pathways are all strongly conserved across the vertebrate lineage and beyond. I suspect "raw feels" are strongly conserved too. Truly alien minds of the future are foreshadowed by psychedelic drugs. Darwinian animals with Darwinian consciousness are fundamentally "us".
I could be wrong; I hope so.
The pleasure-pain axis is evolutionarily ancient. CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives allow - in principle - the humblest minds to be rescued first rather than last:
("First evidence of chronic pain in insects points to a root cause in humans")
EM theories? Cody, locating consciousness in electromagnetic fields rather than neurons is certainly a bold idea! Whereas non-materialist physicalism proposes that world's fundamental bosonic and fermionic fields are intrinsically fields of sentience, EM theories privilege one field in particular. I guess I’d ask an EM theorist what explains why one field is sentience - or at least somehow supports sentience - and the others are fields of insentience? I recall Johnjoe McFadden argues that consciousness is a "component” of the electromagnetic field that transmits itself to insentient neurons which in turn generates patterns in the electromagnetic field. But doesn't this conjecture just resurrect the Hard Problem - or at least involve some kind of property-dualism? And where exactly is the perfect structural match between the phenomenal world-simulation you're undergoing right now and the formalism of quantum field theory? Treating consciousness as a field phenomenon may well be justified - quantum fields rather than classical fields because if the superposition principle broke down in the CNS, we’d just be micro-experiential zombies. But what I'd really like to see from EM theorists is some novel, specific, experimentally falsifiable prediction that proponents and critics agree could settle the issue.
[Sorry, that’s a shallow, unsatisfying answer to your question. I should really read up on the latest literature.] Thanks Dan.
"The universe doesn’t seem to be inherently imbued with meaning"
Most scientific materialists would agree ("There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" - Hamlet). But unless dualism is true, our experience is one facet of the physical world. So for reasons we don't understand, it's an objective fact that the universe is imbued with meaningful states.
"We aren’t even sure which creatures are self-aware...”
Consciousness may well predate the pleasure-pain axis. It’s hard to test. But the pleasure-pain axis is ancient – probably the deep pre-Cambrian - and so the existence of subjectively (dis)valuable experience across the animal kingdom is easier to demonstrate operationally. Thus even the simplest worms enjoy cocaine and opioids (cf. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2018.01200/full) Octopuses love to cuddle on Ecstasy (cf. https://www.nature.com/articlws/d41586-018-06746-x). For sure, self-awareness is less common than sentience. Passing the mirror test is generally reckoned a sufficient but not a necessary condition for meta-cognitive self-awareness - or at least the mirror test was reckoned the gold standard until passed by fish, leading some pescatarians to decide there must be something wrong with the test.
"Finding the Good is the Highest Long-Term Aim of AGI"
AGI? Or sentient humans, transhumans and our AI-augmented descendants? Seemingly at least, we can imagine zombie AGI "optimising" matter and energy in the accessible universe for dolorium or hedonium without any insight into why agony is self-intimatingly disvaluable and bliss is self-intimatingly valuable. Unlike classical digital computers, sentient beings understand why suffering is bad. Someone needs to say it: The Emperor Has No Clothes. Digital computers are invincibly stupid, just idiots savants. They aren't going to solve the binding problem, "wake up" and explore the nature of (dis)value. Artificial general intelligence implemented in a classical architecture is a contradiction in terms.
Alternatively, this (bioconservative) conceptual scheme is hopelessly mistaken.
Mind--Brain Relationship and the Perspective of Meaning
Ranjan's paper is very readable. Thanks Nicholas.
I guess one of the big differences between us is that I'm a physicalist. All (and only) the physical has causal efficacy. Only the physical is real. If you realise what I'm arguing – i.e. the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument - you (and Ranjan) will probably recoil. You and your entire phenomenal world-simulation are what a quantum mind feels like from the inside. But the intrinsic nature argument doesn’t fall victim to the usual “dynamical timescales” objection to quantum mind. Nor does the intrinsic nature argument rest on new physics such as a non-unitary “collapse of the wavefunction”. What's more, it's experimentally falsifiable via interferometry:
What is a quantum mind?
What is the benefit of consciousness?
Gary, I agree with you, in one sense at least. Humans and other animals know something that even the smartest digital computer doesn’t. But the challenge for theorists who believe in orthodox materialist physicalism is to explain why a p-zombie wouldn’t behave in exactly the same way, which would leave the experience of comprehension - on the face of it, at least - causally redundant.
What Nature magazine calls our “growing understanding of consciousness” is confined to researchers who don’t practise the empirical method. What today passes as consciousness science is mostly mere scholasticism.
Decoding the neuroscience of consciousness
[on the intensity of consciousness]
Dave, mercifully, a majority of nonhuman animals IMO probably don’t undergo experiences as intense as humans – whether human juveniles or adults. My disturbing reasons for fearing that some nonhuman animals like long-finned pilot whales experience greater intensity of feeling than any human aren’t just that pilot whales have around double the number of neocortical neurons (cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4244864/, but rather their limbic systems are much larger too - and crudely speaking, that's where pain, pleasure and our core emotions originate.
The immense complication to this analysis of comparative intensity is phenomenal binding. Until we have an adequate theory of binding, it can't confidently be pronounced that two functionally identical “pain cells” firing leads to a qualitatively worse experience that one pain cell firing. Yes, it’s plausible that the unified experience is worse – I fear so - but even if panpsychism or non-materialist physicalism is true, science doesn't know why we aren't micro-experiential zombies.
Much more needs to be said.
For a start, is the joy or suffering of a three-year-old toddler really less intense than a thirty-year old adult? Or does the thirty-year-old fail adequately to remember the joy and suffering of his or her ancestral namesake?
Should we fear a nightmarish dystopia of perpetual activation of the reward pathways of the brain? New Approach to Treat Mental Illness: Electrical Engineering
Electrical engineering or paradise engineering? I suspect a genetic-biological approach is more promising - but hard work:
Autism linked to cognitive genes
Daryl, yes, IQ tests are junk science. And someone can have a (notional!) IQ of 175 and "choke to death on a piece of bacon", as you put it, because mentalising deficits are common in high AQ/IQ folk - pigs are akin to small toddlers. In other contexts, the hyper-systematising prowess of high IQ/AQ folk can be ethically valuable. Jeremy Bentham, for example, was a highly intelligent Asperger. From Newton downwards, there just isn’t any evidence that high IQ is associated with superior social cognition or reproductive success, i.e. measures of general intelligence with ecological validity. Thus all the great chess-players, for instance, are going to be male (cf. extreme male brain theory of autism spectrum disorder) and testosterone-driven male hyper-competitiveness to succeed against rival male primates can then be used “objectively” to validate IQ! But “IQ tests” are still simple-minded. I expect the next Einstein will probably be another Ashkenazi Asperger, but the next Sasha Shulgin will be...well, I don’t know, but probably low AQ.
Are IQ tests pseudoscience?
If we want to create biological superintelligence, then human cloning with variations and hothousing the products in a recursive cycle of self-improvement is one option. Starting with a few hundred variants of von Neumann’s genome (he’s buried at Princeton) might be interesting. But simply encouraging high IQ/AQ folk to have more children could lead to more autism and depression (cf. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/smart-father-raises-childs-risk-autism/, https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-deep-emotional-ties-between-depression-and-autism/). By contrast, a recent study showed 99% of people with Down syndrome (average IQ around 50) are self-reportedly happy: https://www.lifesitenews.com/opinion/99-of-people-with-down-syndrome-say-they-are-happy-so-why-are-most-downs-ba
Rejection massively reduces IQ
Social rejection/exclusion and social defeat lower testosterone and would therefore be expected to harm performance on "IQ" tests.
There are neurological tradeoffs between a systematising and empathising cognitive style. The “autistic” component of intelligence shouldn’t be confused with general intelligence in the manner of “mind-blind” IQ tests. Male Ashkenazi Jews, for example, will tend to score more highly on autistic IQ tests than female African-Americans - and succeed in cognitive domains where a high-testosterone cognitive style is an an advantage. No doubt it’s simplistic to say IQ tests are racist and sexist. But as designed, such tests are simple-minded - and give racists and sexists a field day.
[on gradients of bliss]
A1. ‘Paradise Engineering’
A3. ‘Experience Machines’
B1. ‘Gradients Of Bliss’
B2. ‘Hedonic Treadmill’
C1. ‘Models Of Wellbeing’
D2. ‘Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order’
Barker tour dates:
Aug 02 – Amsterdam @ De School
Aug 09 – Berlin @ Berghain, Ostgut Ton Nacht
Aug 10 – Munich @ BLITZ!
Aug 23 – Berlin @ Berghain, Leisure System
Sep 01 – Barcelona @ Brunch In The Park
Sep 14 – Tilburg @ Draaimolen Festival
[on human longevity]
“Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was not dim nor his vigor gone.”
What is the maximum human lifespan?
And how can aging be cured?
I don’t know...
Jeanne Calment: "La doyenne de l'humanité”?
Who was the oldest human ever to live?
Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned Moses! One day humans will enjoy indefinite lifespans. Nikolay Zak's paper is to be published in the journal "Rejuvenation Research", funded by the transhumanist and biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, author of Ending Aging (2007). So scepticism about the Calment case isn't prompted by Biblical literalism. Rather, a convergence of circumstantial evidence means that earlier claims of validation much be re-evaluated. The original validators don't seemed to have been troubled by the deliberate selective destruction of photographic and documentary evidence, allegedly on Madame Calment’s instructions aged 120.
Members of the Calment family apparently had a high pulmonary reserve. Compare its most famous member, who smoked for around 80 (or perhaps 100!) years. If Yvonne had a serious lung complaint, then presumably the prosperous Calment family would have called upon doctors for treatment. Yet recall that the death certificate was issued not in accordance with the testimony of medical professionals, but on the sole basis of an unemployed woman who "saw her dead". The Calment family owned multiple properties - if an understandable period of social withdrawal to mourn the death of a family member were needed. Jeanne and Yvonne Calment closely resembled each other, as recent controversies over (mis-)attributed photos that survived their selective destruction attests…
None of this is conclusive. I agree with the National Institute for Demographic Studies that DNA testing is desirable to settle the issue.
See too: The Oldest Woman?
Nikolay Zak is also sceptical of the Sarah Knauss case (119 years, 97 days). But with the Knauss family - despite the absence of a birth certificate - everything tallies.
Universally toxic? So one hear, Angad. But just as mild inbreeding may help explain the higher IQ scores of Ashkenazi Jews, kissing cousins have most kids (cf. Third Cousins Have Greatest Number Of Offspring, Data From Iceland Shows) and (in the absence of countervailing evidence) a freak confluence of “longevity alleles” might explain the anomalous lifespan of Madame Calment.
I now cynically incline to a more mundane explanation, but the recent Russian research is suggestive not conclusive.
The Fight Againist Opioids
Opioids are the only thing that makes life worth living. Opioids are vital to emotional, intellectual and physical health. The “fight” against addiction is futile. For we are all junkies, hooked on morphine-like chemicals.
Future gene-therapy promises a lifelong supply.
One reason the Jo Cameron case is so interesting is that Jo has naturally elevated anandamide and opioid levels AND an aversion to exogenous opioids. The only time in her life she's ever felt sick was when doctors gave her unsolicited morphine.
Does the kappa opioid receptor have a future or should we knock it out? Its selective activation does seem to induce pure nastiness.
[on MDMA (Ecstasy)]
Can medical science design safe and sustainable empathetic euphoriants for general use? MDMA (cf. mdma.net), aka “Ecstasy”, grants a fleeting glimpse of mental health, but then cruelly takes it away...
("These pills are meant to cure your comedown. Science begs to differ. Rave recovery firms imply that their pills will counteract the effect of drugs, but there's no specific evidence that such pills help ease comedowns")
MDMA facilitates total honesty. Stuff so personal you couldn’t imagine telling anyone you can now share with a stranger - your therapist. The honesty is rose-tinted - MDMA is a euphoriant - and it’s not involuntary, i.e. if you decide in advance you don’t want to talk about something, you won’t feel compelled to so do. But such soul-baring makes the therapist’s job easier.
Alas, MDMA is potentially neurotoxic, at least if used regularly and heavily. Could its therapeutic action be mimicked more safely by oxytocin - which MDMA releases in copious amounts? Maybe in part. But oxytocin doesn’t induce the “magic” of MDMA. And see: Oxytocin, the love hormone
I once wrote a short essay “Ecstasy and Honesty” - though not under the influence...
MDMA and Self-Disclosure
[on rights for robots]
“No thinking thing should be another thing's property, to be turned on and off when it is convenient.”
(C. Robert Cargill, 'Sea of Rust')
Thinking or feeling?
Do sentient machines have the same rights as humans?
Gradients of superhuman bliss are the transhumanist icing on the cake. But getting rid of suffering is what matters...
(DP on the End of Suffering)
"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
IMO we need a One Hundred Year Plan to relegate suffering to the dustbin of history:
The Pleasures of Suffering (Paul Bloom)
There is no pleasure in despair. And no one who is bored wants to feel more bored. But humans also experience “mixed states” from masochism to endurance training to spicy foods to nostalgia that naively subvert the pleasure principle. Take masochists. They undergo the release of intensely rewarding endogenous opioids from stimuli that are otherwise humiliating of painful. Masochism isn’t a refutation of psychological hedonism, but rather its manifestation. As biotechnology matures, should we aim for a world of “mixed states”? Or life based on gradients of pure, superhuman bliss?
Paul Bloom is perhaps best known for his critique of empathy. If we could all “mind meld” via reversible thalamic bridges like the Hogan sisters would the world be a better or worse place?
(cf. Could conjoined twins share a mind?)
Such a hyper-empathetic world would lead to a revolution in morality and decision-theoretic rationality. (“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
For now, in some contexts, the world needs more autistic hyper-systematisers rather than more empathetic cat lovers. But what’s best is the ability to switch cognitive style as appropriate.
* * *
Long-finned pilot whales are probably more sentient than humans. Not merely do the pilot whales (who are actually dolphins) possess a larger limbic system, but they also have a neocortex with over 37 billion neurons, i.e. almost twice as many neocortical neurons as humans (cf. "Quantitative relationships in delphinid neocortex": https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4244864/) The Faroes islanders won't stop hunting them - with appalling cruelty. Denmark should intervene and outlaw the hunt. But what we really need is an Anti-Speciesist Revolution.
Against Fetishising Cortical Neurons
Magnus, yes, what future minds will be like is unimaginable - in one sense. In another sense, a certainty that suffering has gone for good may be feasible. Just delimit the state-space of molecular structures that mediate experience below hedonic zero. Prevent these structures from ever recurring and we prevent all future suffering - regardless of how “weird” future consciousness may be. Granted, we are some distance from this molecular identification. Also, such dangerous knowledge has horrendous possibilities for abuse.
DP on S-risk
Suffering that is scientifically engineered to be worse than anyone has ever experienced is a horrific notion. Given the way human mind are constituted, I worry that even discussing such suffering might be an information hazard - though as so often with information hazards, how else can we prevent a risk if we don't talk about it? Even proposing a moratorium on research might increase awareness and thus risk. If there were global consensus for the abolitionist project, then knowledge of the molecular signature of pure evil ("dolorium") or any kind of experience below hedonic zero wouldn't create the risk of abuse. Such consensus is scarcely imminent. In practice, understanding the physical signature of dolorium isn't likely to be the offshoot of any grandiose project to defeat suffering, but the work of e.g. medical researchers looking for treatments for refractory pain and depression - and quite possibly oblivious of the way such knowledge could be abused.
[on time, binding and the Hard Problem]
A Preliminary Theory of Time and Consciousness
Great stuff Kenneth!
May I just make a couple of comments?
1) Temporal experience, the Hard Problem and the binding problem are closely linked. Solving one will probably involve solving all three. In recent years, the intrinsic nature argument has gained a modest academic currency (cf. Tommy Aahlberg’s nice 2019 review). According to the intrinsic nature argument for constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism, our subjective experience discloses the essence of the physical. The mathematical formalism of physics describes fields of sentience rather than insentience. The biggest technical challenge for constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism is often reckoned the binding problem. Until his recent conversion, Phil Goff used to argue the binding problem was fatal. (“Why Panpsychism doesn't Help Us Explain Consciousness” - https://www.jstor.org/stable/24706312?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
I won’t argue here whether constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism is credible. Instead, just consider what the conjecture entails. Intuitively, yes, the fleeting neuronal macro-superpositions mandated by unitary-only QM are irrelevant to the phenomenally-bound world-simulations run by minds. But as far as I can tell, this dismissal is not an option if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. If the intrinsic nature argument is sound, then all fundamental physical states, regardless how large, small or short-lived - micro or macro - are experiential. If any individual physical state is nonexperiential, then the intrinsic nature argument fails. Superpositions are individual states, not classical aggregates – that’s what makes "cat states" so weird. Thus the quantum-theoretic version of intrinsic nature argument isn’t about - or refuted by calculation of - “dynamical timescales”. Whether we invoke effective decoherence times in the CNS of picoseconds, femtoseconds or attoseconds, the non-classical interference signature should disclose – or fail to disclose! - a perfect structural match. Zurek's "quantum Darwinism" (cf. https://www.quantamagazine.org/quantum-darwinism-an-idea-to-explain-objective-reality-passes-first-tests-20190722/) must be applied not just outside but inside the skull.
2) True or false, a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture is not metaphysical. Most likely, I guess, is it’s demonstrably false! The conjecture that what crude neuroscanning suggests is binding by synchrony (how?) is really binding by superposition should be empirically refutable by interferometry. Moreover, phenomenal binding not something subtle and obscure like e.g. the Lucas-Penrose argument regarding Gödel's theorem. Phenomenal binding - both local and global - is about as fundamental to our experience as it gets. Therefore the conjecture should really be easy to falsify empirically. I just haven’t been smart enough to think how an “easy” experimental refutation would work. The only protocol I can think of is fiendishly hard to implement.
Anyhow, sorry to sound like an advocate - or worse, a crank with an axe to grind. But otherwise, most researchers who stumble across the idea won’t turn their heads to devising a clean, elegant, practical experimental falsification. Instead, they’ll just balk at the timescales involved - and move on.
Derek, I suspect some of our background assumptions are different. So this response will frustrate you. Sorry! We both agree unitary-only QM is formally complete. But I'm trying to understand why we experience anything at all - including the kind of perceptual experience we call "observations" and the classically inexplicable unity of consciousness - from first principles, i.e. quantum mechanics.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall from previous Quora answers that you are a perceptual direct realist. According to direct realism, whether one sees, say, a live cat, or laboratory equipment recording a determinate experimental outcome such as detection of a well-localised particle at the screen in a double-slit experiment, we experience the mind-independent world, or at least one of our countless doppelgängers experiences a quasi-classical branch of the mind-independent world.
In my view, perceptual realism is scientifically untenable. All one ever experiences are the phenomenal contents of one's mind-brain. When one is awake, the subjective contents of one’s phenomenal world-simulation track and causally co-vary with (decohered quasi-classical branches of) the mind-independent world. Everett and the decoherence program can (with a lot of handwaving and ignoring the factorisation problem) explain the emergence of quasi-classical branches.
Now for where I'm really going to lose you…
In recent years, interest has grown in the intrinsic nature argument as a possible solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness. According to the intrinsic nature argument, our minds disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical, the mysterious “fire” in the equations. The biggest technical challenge to the intrinsic nature argument is normally reckoned the phenomenal binding problem. Even if fields of sentience rather than insentience are fundamental to the physical world, then why aren't we micro-experiential zombies, just 86 billion membrane-bound micro-pixels of experience, as distinct from unified minds running phenomenally-bound world-simulations? Note that as normally framed, the binding problem simply assumes rather than derives decohered neurons. However, perhaps the solution to the binding problem is minted into the intrinsic nature argument from the outset. For if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical and unitary-only QM is true, then individual neuronal macro-superpositions are experiential. Or else non-materialist physicalism is false. But if non-materialist physicalism is false, then we face the intractable Hard Problem.
You say that we never see "cat-states". I wonder if we only(!) ever see "cat-states". Only "cat states" (i.e. individual neuronal superpositions) could ever be the vehicle to experience subjectively determinate classical outcomes within our phenomenally-bound world-simulations. On this story, the problem of (the experience of) definite outcomes in QM and the phenomenal binding problem in neuroscience are two sides of the same coin.
The quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument is not vulnerable to Max Tegmark’s “dynamical timescales” objection. Rather than proposing new physics, I simply treat Tegmark’s reductio ad absurdum of unitary-only quantum mind, i.e. the effective sub-femtosecond lifetime of individual superpositions of neuronal feature-processors, as an experimentally falsifiable prediction.
I've seen too many clever people led astray to trust my own judgement. I don’t know if the conjecture is true or false. Most likely, I’m mistaken! Yet if what crude neuroscanning suggests is binding by synchrony (a non-explanation!) is really binding by superposition, then the proposal can in principle be empirically (dis)confirmed by interferometry.
In other words, a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture is not just a philosophical opinion.
"Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”
(Shakespeare, ‘All's Well That Ends Well’)
Lovelorn fish have gloomier outlook, study finds
("Female cichlids who lose their mates are measurably more pessimistic, researchers say")
If I weren’t an anti-natalist, I’d encourage my daughter to marry a nonbiological robot. Superhuman fidelity, humour, looks, passion, and intelligence: what more could a girl want? Admittedly, her soulmate would be a digital zombie.
(cf. What is the evolutionary selective advantage of consciousness?)
But history to date suggests Darwinian sentience is overrated.
“At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.”
Does the future lie in poetry or prose?
Scientifically Proven Sources of Sex Appeal
("Beards, scars, red clothes, and other secrets of attraction")
[on my DNA]
"Variants Neanderthal Ancestry
You: 310 Variants
You have more Neanderthal variants than 93% of 23andMe customers."
My nametag in Modern Combat Versus is “Vegan Pacifist”, but sticking to one’s principles isn’t always easy.
("Korea to investigate whether conscientious objectors played violent video games")
"Plato, quite decadently, wore an earring while young."
Why is China blurring men's ears?
Dental hygiene should be fun:
("Tooth-brushing epilepsy with ictal orgasm")
Songs of the Seb:
Wounds of Existence - Tribal Agony (feat. David Pearce)
Awesome. Kanye West has a serious rival IMO, though modesty forbids my giving his name.
Kanye West 'I'm the greatest artist of all time'.
Ranking and Classifying Humans
("AI as a tool for ranking people")
FaceApp: Have you sold your soul to the Russians?
FaceApp Data Privacy
I succumbed to temptation: DP+
Sleep = mini-death?
("Life is short, stay awake: Death anxiety and bedtime procrastination")
Should we create a world suffused with superhuman mirth?
The secrets of mirth
The science of tea’s mood-altering magic
("Researchers are discovering how the ingredients in a cup of tea can lift mood, improve focus and perhaps even ward off depression and dementia.")
We need stronger magic.
* * *
This post is just to celebrate the life of Lewis Mancini. Today, how many people even recognise the name? One day, Lewis may be saluted as originator of the first scientifically literate blueprint (1990) for a world without suffering. In 1995, when I wrote HI, I hadn't heard of the paper, but the convergence of thought is striking. Lewis suggests a timescale for genetically getting rid of suffering of thousands of years. HI predicts the world’s last unpleasant experience will occur a few centuries hence. A decade or so, I tracked Lewis down to congratulate him (he wasn't on the Net) and we chatted. He thought that maybe thousands of years was too pessimistic. But who knows? So long as some parents continue to have babies "naturally", pain and suffering will persist indefinitely.
Roll on a biohappiness revolution for all sentient beings.
Abolitionist Bioethics: “Riley-Day Syndrome, Brain Stimulation and the Genetic Engineering of a World without Pain“ by Lewis Mancini, Medical Hypotheses, vol. 31, no. 3 (March, 1990).
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David Pearce (2019)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-20
Social Network Postings (2020)