JANUARY 2020 -
[on the 2010s]
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
2019 RIP...FB 2019
and a lot of Quora punditry.
Thanks Manu. Three laughing philosophers: spot the negative utilitarian?
The admirable Sentience Research have just published an interview I did before Christmas. Let's hope the darker multiverse stuff I worry about turns out to be risible nonsense.
"The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.”
(Michel de Montaigne)
A case in point...?
The Mind of DP The Mind of DP 2
Thanks Alex. Getting our theory of binding right is ethically vital. Even if consciousness is fundamental in nature, nothing would (non-trivially) matter if we were all micro-experiential zombies. I don't blame anyone who thinks the “Schrödinger’s neurons” (2016) conjecture I investigate is too crazy for words and not worth the trouble of experimentally refuting. To explain binding, let's explore the sane, classical options instead. The snag is that currently there aren’t any classical options - nothing testable at any rate - that don't simply re-state the original problem. A ubiquitous feature of our waking lives should be impossible if textbook neuroscience is correct.
[on pain, suffering and abolitionism]
Is Middle England ready for transhumanism?
Transhumanism in the Daily Express...
The End of Suffering
("Transhumanist argues technology could end all human and animal suffering")
OK, I was surprised too.
Transhumanism as the new Valium?
Technological advancement could end all human worries and pain, says transhumanist
“Without suffering we would need each other less and our life stories would become ever more trivial.”
Trivial or enriched?
DP on the Abolitionist Project
Intriguingly, people with SCN9A gene nonsense mutations completely lack both pain- and odour-sensitivity, whereas some functional alleles of SCN9A are associated with both hyperalgesia and hyperosmia:
"Who, except the gods, can live time through forever without any pain?”
Time to become gods?
SCN9A in the Daily Mail:
Scientists learn how to 'edit out' pain
Should all new babies be created with benign versions of SCN9A?
The end of pain
Human and domesticated nonhuman animals alike would be healthier and happier if we didn't eat each other:
Vegetarians vs meat-eaters
But leaving aside ethical and health arguments, imagine if governments world-wide put tens of billions of dollars into developing cultured meat and animal products. Not merely would this solution (probably) prevent the next zoonotic plague and save billions of nonhumans; it would also be massively cost-effective. Covid-19 was caused by meat-eating. Tens of trillions of dollars' worth of wealth worldwide will be wiped out in consequence of animal abuse - quite aside from the untold suffering of other sentient beings.
“A little poison now and then - maketh pleasant dreams.”
(Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra)
Do you prefer dreaming or waking psychosis?
We’re all having intense coronavirus dreams
I learned a new word today:
“Empathy is the greatest virtue. From it, all virtues flow. Without it, all virtues are an act.”
But without autistic hyper-systematisers, we will never eradicate suffering.
Scrap lockdown? Sean, without partial lockdown, over one million Americans would die from COVID-19. In practice, hospitals would be overwhelmed, so the figure would be higher. By contrast, even low-income countries with effective leadership are now emerging from strict lockdown with the virus tamed and their economies intact. This isn't the place for a political tract. But the USA needs Medicare-for-all, universal basic income, and invocation of the 25th amendment.
Zoltan, yes, groupthink can be disastrous. I agree with you on how it’s terrible that non-COVID science funding is being slashed. But experts think that without lockdown, millions of Americans would die or become seriously ill. The hospitals would be overwhelmed. There’d be bodies in the streets. As far as I can tell, ending the lockdown before COVID-19 is contained would only prolong the pandemic. Most would-be consumers who didn’t personally get sick would either lose a close friend/family member or know someone who had. Are consumers just going to keep spending away throughout the carnage to keep the economy humming? The mind boggles. Compare New Zealand. New Zealand had a “go hard, go early” lockdown strategy that worked. The US risks becoming a failed state; it’s tragic what we’re seeing.
The wisdom of lockdown
COVID Conspiracy Theories
[on re-engineering life]
“In nature I see, or seem to see, good and evil -- intelligence and ignorance -- goodness and cruelty -- care and carelessness -- economy and waste. I see means that do not accomplish the ends -- designs that seem to fail. To me it seems infinitely cruel for life to feed on life -- to create animals that devour others. The teeth and beaks, the claws and fangs, that tear and rend, fill me with horror. What can be more frightful than a world at war? Every leaf a battle-field -- every flower a Golgotha -- in every drop of water pursuit, capture and death. Under every piece of bark, life lying in wait for life. On every blade of grass, something that kills, - something that suffers.”
Pilot studies will be wise...
Reprogramming the Biosphere
DP in Oxford:
Event and PDF
no task for script kiddies or (critics might say) philosophers.
“...future insights into the genetics of mood will almost certainly enable us to substantially improve the lives of trillions of animals...”
On Mitigating the Cruelty of Natural Selection Through Humane Genome Editing
Hedonic uplift via synthetic gene drives can help civilise the biosphere.
Maybe more botanical gardens, but not malarial swamps:
Humans need the wilderness to be happy
[on personal identity]
Podcast. Identity and the AI Revolution.
DP, Lucas, Andrés & The Future of Life Institute
Empty, open & closed individualism
"Do no harm and leave the world a better place than you found it.”
Darwinian life is monstrous.
Yet will the problem of suffering be solved by “hard” antinatalism or a biohappiness revolution? Exploring Antinatalism - David Pearce
“To hurt is as human as to breathe.”
(J.K. Rowling, The Tales of Beedle the Bard)
How can we stop hurting?
DP on Antinatalism
By a freakish coincidence, kappa also happens to be name of the "nasty" opioid receptor, i.e. its activation induces dysphoria...
Choosing to stay child-free or adopting just intensifies selection pressure in favour of natalism. So antinatalism is not going to solve the problem of suffering. Hundreds of millions of humans may well die in war this century. But humans are not going to wipe themselves out. So apocalyptic solutions won’t solve the problem of suffering either. In practice, archaic humans will (probably) become extinct over the next few centuries as we reprogram the biosphere, not least ourselves. I know some transhumanists believe we will be replaced by AGI: the “Intelligence Explosion”. But as prefigured by Neurolink, “narrow” superintelligence on neurochips may instead soon be embedded within us. Eventually, full-spectrum superintelligence will be “us” - or rather, our posthuman descendants.
Thanks Mark. Perhaps VeganAntinatalist and I have more common than we do with Toby Ord - whose book “The Precipice - Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity” you preview above. Toby is not a fan of negative utilitarianism (“a devastatingly callous theory” - Why I am not a negative utilitarian). Indeed, assuming that humanity is really standing on a precipice, he fears negative utilitarians would administer a vigorous shove. (I respond here I suspect my big difference with VeganAntinatalist is how we administer the terminal “shove” - human extinction via “hard” antinatalism or a transhumanist genetic rewrite.
"There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong."
(H L Mencken, 'Prejudices' (1920))
Childfree Efilist Nihilist, first, apologies that we didn't tackle your question/criticism. I'll do my best to respond now. Like you, I'm wholeheartedly in favour of retiring pain-ridden Darwinian life. Where we may differ is how to achieve its extinction.
For evolutionary reasons, a plea not to bring more life and suffering into the world usually falls on deaf ears – as we know. In my view, "strong" antinatalists who believe they can persuade everyone, everywhere, not to breed greatly overestimate their powers of persuasion. Selection pressure is too strong. It works against us.
However, we are living in the final century where pain and suffering are biologically inevitable. As you say, we are all constrained by the laws of physics. Nonetheless, even now, if a couple want to have a child who won't suffer any physical pain, it's feasible. Gene-editing is a gamechanger. Just knock out the SCN9A gene. Sure, this solution isn't ideal. Nonsense mutations of SCN9A prevent not just the nasty “raw feels” of pain, but also the function of nociception. But SCN9A has dozens of "natural" alleles that confer abnormally high or abnormally low pain-sensitivity: SCN9A has been described as the “volume knob” for pain. Synthetic variants can be designed too. In principle, there's nothing to stop us ensuring that all future babies are born with the extraordinary pain tolerance of today's high-functioning genetic outliers – folk who regard pain as just a useful signal and a modest inconvenience. A predisposition to mental pain is more complicated to control genetically; but the same basic principle is at stake.
Admittedly, this single intervention is only one step on the way to a transhumanist civilisation with a civilised signalling system based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of well-being. Yet the SCN9A gene example illustrates how life and suffering can be divorced. For better or worse, there will always be selection pressure against (any predisposition to) antinatalism. By contrast, as the reproductive revolution of "designer babies" unfolds, there won't be selection pressure in favour of genes predisposing to suffering. Quite the opposite. Most parents want happy kids. Presumably, they’ll choose genetic dial-settings accordingly.
Temperamentally, I’m personally an über-pessimist. But as far as I can tell, a combination of the pleasure principle and biotechnology means that utopian dreams will most likely come true. In tomorrow's world of post-Darwinian life, suffering of any kind will be physiologically impossible.
1) Yes, I agree with Herman Tønnessen. In my view, creating more Darwinian malware via sexual reproduction is akin to child abuse. Just as with child abuse, the perpetrators are also victims – victims of a compulsion they didn’t choose. I’d urge anyone thinking of having children to stay child-free or adopt. Naturally, this advice will be ignored – rare exceptions aside. So I advocate a transhumanist agenda of eradicating suffering through science. Perhaps see
A World without Pain
How do you break the hedonic treadmill?.
The end of suffering will involve genetic engineering and ultimately reprogramming the biosphere:
2) Yes, I too worry about s-risks – all the concerns raised by the questioner and more. But I’d ask a question in turn: what is the alternative? If we don’t re-engineer the genome, and instead conserve the genetic status quo, then obscene suffering will persist indefinitely in human and nonhuman animals alike – maybe for hundreds of millions of years. As I discuss in the podcast, the nature of selection pressure (cf. Why David Pearce is wrong about antinatalism) means that “hard”, extinctionist antinatalism won’t solve the problem of suffering. Therefore, we have to tackle the biological-genetic roots of this monstrous evil at source – mindful of all the possible ways our interventions could go wrong.
Adam, in fairness, not all antinatalists are depressive or depressed. Some antinatalists just don't believe it's ethically permissible to bring more life and suffering into the world without prior consent. Also, amongst antinatalists (and others) who are depressed, many would sincerely prefer simply not to wake up in the morning. In other words, an unwillingness or inability to commit bodily self-harm doesn't show a lack of good faith.
Adam, I agree with you about the importance of epistemic humility. We just need to distinguish epistemic humility from status quo bias. That's why any thought-experiment should have two buttons, DELETE and COPY. Most life lovers believe it would be monstrous and epistemically arrogant to press the DELETE button. But what about the COPY button? Should one take responsibility for creating - or missing out on - more suffering and more joy than any tyrant / philanthropist in history? Even subjects who say they would press the COPY button rarely condemn folk who say otherwise.
Contra Robert King, I suspect that if wireheading (or its opioidergic equivalent) were widely available, then a lot of people would sign up - though once again, selection pressure means that wireheading is not a solution to the problem of suffering.
Good to be Alive
Thanks Daryl. I've just borrowed the Ecclesiastes quote for a Quora answer. To be honest, I'd never really thought about the passage before. "All is vanity", the King James Version text, rather obscures the stark message. It's not exactly inspiration to "Go forth and multiply", to quote another Biblical injunction.
What do you think of anti-natalism?
I'm now looking through the comments:
InMendham has responded too:
But IMO the horror movie of Darwinian life will end only when we reprogram the biosphere.
[on suffering-focused ethics]
"It is a glorious thing to be indifferent to suffering, but only to one's own suffering.”
The author, Magnus Vinding, is an exuberant life lover. But he recognises our overriding obligation is to prevent suffering:
Defense and Implications
by Magnus Vinding.
Center For Reducing Suffering
In the long-run (centuries?), moral bioenhancement is credible. This century, however, I wonder if it's most fruitful to focus on technologies to prevent suffering that don't call for any significant moral improvement. Thus the main reason for developing and commercialising cultured meat is to ensure literally zero personal inconvenience to consumers - not even the trivial inconvenience of eating meat substitutes. So long as zero personal inconvenience is involved (e.g. lifestyle changes, tax increases etc), most people are relaxed about improving the lives of human and nonhuman animals, and happy to signal their virtue accordingly. This is the Principle of Weak Benevolence - less formally, "no skin off my nose".
Of course I hope Magnus' book changes unenhanced minds.
Should research into extreme pleasure be discouraged as a memetic hazard? For instance, classical utilitarians might try to obliterate human civilisation with a utilitronium shockwave? No: a “utilitronium shockwave” is just a thought-experiment - far beyond our current technological abilities. By contrast, research into extreme suffering is felt by some classical utilitarian EA’s to be dangerous because such research could lead to apocalyptic conclusions, i.e. doomsday scenarios allegedly more practical to implement than a utilitronium shockwave. Indeed, if one knew how bad suffering can be, then one would do (literally) anything to stop it. I don’t know the solution. But it’s frustrating. For there are biological-genetic ways to prevent (extreme) suffering that are also strongly bioconservative. And rather than increasing existential / global catastrophic risk as conceived by CUs, research into ending (extreme) suffering is more likely to reduce risk and turn NUs into CUs.
Jeremy Hatfield offers a sympathetic interpretation of Nietzsche:
Nietzsche on joy and suffering
I prefer Buddhism plus biotech:
The abolitionist imperative
[on drugs and medicine]
"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
(George Bernard Shaw)
All foods and all medicines are subtly psychoactive.
The medications that change who we are
Eliminative materialism is the upshot of naive realism and neurobabble. Raymond Tallis reviews the curious story of how some philosophers lost their minds:
("Wired to care. Does neurobiology really explain everything?")
Private versus public? Lance, until tools of reversible mind-melding become widespread, it's a useful distinction. But until then, our phenomenal world-simulations are all private. External reality is a theoretical inference, not an empirical given. Like his mentor Ryle, Dennett tends to assume we have shared perceptual access to a public realm.
Could I program an insentient chatbot to sound like an illusionist? With a bit of technical help, yes. But I could also program an insentient chatbot to talk about its ineffable private qualia.
“Illusionism”, “antirealism” and “eliminativism” about consciousness are sometimes treated as synonymous terms. But it’s worth distinguishing between the claim that:
(1) subjective experience can’t exist because first-person facts are irreducible to the ontology of our best theory of the world, scientific materialism:
Are eliminativists p-zombies?
(2) subjective experience conceived as something non-physical doesn’t exist. Contrary to popular opinion, subjective experience is physical. Only the physical is real.
In the latter sense (2), I’m an illusionist / antirealist / eliminativist about consciousness as commonly conceived too:
[on quantum mechanics]
Relational quantum mechanics
What was the nature of reality in a world before the existence of "observers" - or rather, simple animals whose primitive world-simulations tracked features of mind-independent reality? And how did such organisms arise from an abiotic universe? One can dismiss these questions as illegitimate. Any attempt to recover classical physics is indeed doomed to failure. But the problem with (what may loosely be called) "anti-realist" interpretations of quantum mechanics like Copenhagen and the Relational Interpretation is they essentially give up trying to explain reality. Worse, as soon as one gives up realism, it's hard to avoid spiralling into solipsism. Perceptual naive realism is false - one can't directly access a macroscopic world. Sure, the solipsist can use the Schrödinger evolution and the Born rule instrumentally and avoid thinking of anything beyond his little island-universe of experience. But effectively that's just giving up on explaining anything – the scientific version of magic (“Shut up and calculate”).
IMO, good science should aim to derive the properties of our minds and their phenomenal world-simulations from the underlying physics. I’m pessimistic we’ll succeed any time soon. I don’t think we should just give up.
Thanks Paul. Orch-OR has the rare distinction of being a theory of consciousness that is experimentally falsifiable(!). I hope Roger Penrose is correct. As he acknowledges, the only serious alternative to a “dynamical collapse” theory is Everett. The big challenge for 3 Worlds Philosophy is of course to explain the relationship between them. I incline to a one-world view (though wavefunction monism is sometimes wrongly called “many worlds”). But it’s much easier to be a nominalist if you’re a mediocre maths-amateur like me than a world-class mathematician like Penrose. Almost all the strongest mathematicians seem to be platonists. And it’s not even clear extreme nominalism is intelligible. I struggle:
What is considered the hardest paradox to explain?
Paul, some of our background assumptions may be different. My working assumption is Lev Vaidman’s combination of the causally time-symmetric two-state vector formalism and Everett (cf. The Two-State Vector Formalism) - but with a twist. I don’t think we ever experience anything other than neuronal superpositions - not least, seemingly definite outcomes that conform to the Born rule (cf. the measurement problem). How can the Born rule be derived from the unitary-only dynamics? As you suggest, this is tricky. Are we components of finite or infinite-dimensional complex Hilbert space? Physicists differ: (cf. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1801.08132.pdf). All my prejudices are finitist. The multiverse is one big superposition. Talk of “many worlds” is just a metaphorical convenience. Forgive me for just rehashing my views rather than critiquing yours and Dyson’s. But I should probably stress again. Reality baffles me!
[Paul Mealing writes] "But he [Philip Ball] doesn’t mention that Born’s rule is equivalent to multiplying the wave function by its complex conjugate (ψ x ψ*). Schrödinger wrote a paper in 1931 pointing out that this is akin to running the wave function both forward and backward in time. John Gribbin referenced Schrodinger’s paper (and his insight) in a biography, 'Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution'".
Yes, Schrödinger seems to have anticipated both Everett (in a Dublin lecture) and Vaidman but balked at what a realistic interpretation of his own equation entails.
Deriving The Born Rule (Quanta Magazine)
“‘After all, Galley said, uniqueness ‘is required for us to be able to even begin to do science.’”
This sounds like a truism. And sure enough, our experience of definite outcomes is a prerequisite of science. But although the content of our experience is surely of determinate outcomes (“observations”), I reckon the neuronal vehicle of our experience is non-classical. Only the fact that the superposition principle doesn’t break down in your head allows you to experience phenomenally-bound perceptual objects and determinate experimental pointer-readings (etc) - in seeming defiance of the unitary-only dynamics.
Here’s Chad Orzel:
Many Worlds, But Too Much Metaphor. Perhaps I should add that the main reason I’ve been forced to engage with the foundations of QM is the phenomenal binding problem:
The binding problem
If you believe that binding is classically impossible, then you don’t have many options if one discounts Chalmersian dualism.
Timeless Everettian QM also offers the only explanation-space I can think of for why anything exists at all: unitary-only QM is the only interpretation consistent with an informationless zero ontology:
Why does the universe exist?
Everettian QM also dissolves the fine-tuning-problem:
Fine-tuned universe - Wikipedia
But IMO perhaps the most fundamental reason for preferring Everett & Vaidman is simply that this interpretation takes the formalism at face value. You need to be very clever indeed to start tampering with the unitary dynamics. As you note, there are affinities with Feynman’s path integral formulation and Everett, and the “teleological” flavour of the path integral approach makes some physicists uncomfortable; but Feynman and Everett were philosophically different creatures.
Anyhow, heaven knows what’s really going on!
"There is no way to deny that we experience definite classical outcomes of our experiments" may be too strong. Alternatively, the vehicle of experience is itself always a superposition, and the subjective content of such superpositions is always a definite classical outcome.
Assume the unitary (linear, deterministic) evolution. As far as I can tell, it's only the fact that the superposition principle doesn't break down inside our heads that allows each of us to experience a four-dimensional classical world of determinate pointer-readings and live cats - and to make "observations" in accordance with the Born rule. In other words, only the ubiquity of the superposition principle allows us to solve the binding problem and experience definite outcomes.
This interpretation (“Schrödinger’s neurons”) is of course an inversion of the normal story - agreed by essentially everyone (Copenhagenists, Everettians, Bohmians, dynamical collapse theorists, etc) - in which superpositions are never experienced, only inferred. And I don't pretend to know whether the conjecture is true - merely that tomorrow’s interferometry will (dis)confirm it.
Compare my conjecture that all we ever experience is "cat states" - superpositions mediate our subjective experience of classical reality - with Scott Aaronson:
("Suppose we held that the Thermodynamic Arrow of Time, and our inability to reverse it, was essential to subjective experience. Then by our result, there would be no such thing as a subjective experience of a superposition state")
[on artificial intelligence]
Thanks Dan. Great stuff! A couple of comments.
You remark how “...the ability to detect the neural activity of all living things seems much closer to “impossible” than the creation of super intelligence (which itself is a gargantuan challenge).”
1. Our assessments of comparative difficulty may differ. From worms to humans, the genetic-biological basis of the pleasure-pain axis is evolutionarily very strongly conserved. Essentially, the same genes and same opioid-dopamine signalling systems are found in invertebrates and humans. Soon we’ll have the ability remotely to reprogram the biosphere - and the pleasure-pain axis - via e.g. CRISPR-based synthetic gene drives. Compared to mastery of the pleasure-pain axis, developing full-spectrum superintelligence strikes me as far harder.
2. The implications of AGI plus classical utilitarianism are apocalyptic. As you know, I’m a sceptic about the Intelligence Explosion (cf. The Intelligence Explosion). But assume I’m wrong. How do you stop AGI from maximising the abundance of positive value in the world by unleashing an all-consuming utilitronium shockwave? Think hedonium, not paperclips (cf. Autistic paperclip-maximisers).
As I said, my background assumptions are different. But maybe I’m mistaken. If so, human conservationists should worry!
Dan, I guess the one possibility you discuss beyond my conceptual scheme (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!) is (7) an intrinsic “good” beyond the pain-pleasure axis. Of course, we all have countless discussions that seem only tangentially related to pain and pleasure. Yet ultimately all (dis)value strikes me as derivative from the pain-pleasure axis. Even sentience wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for hedonic tone. But OK, suppose there is another axis of (dis)value. Wouldn’t there then need to be some sort of overarching meta-axis of (dis)value to regulate tradeoffs? ....I’m with you about how inconceivably alien future consciousness will be - more than taking DMT or LSD or salvia or ketamine (etc), drugs which modulate only our existing wetware. But my intuition - and we know what they’re worth! - is that the state-space of (dis)value is tightly circumscribed. Experience outside it belongs to a different category altogether. Compare, say, volition. Someone can be unmotivated, slightly motivated, highly motivated or superhumanly motivated. They can have mixed motives or conflicting motives. They can be motivated to do zillions of different things. But there’s only one axis of (a)volition. I reckon there’s only one axis of (dis)value.
Perhaps I’m wrong! :-)
Minimise suffering! Then no problem...
AI Will Do What We Ask. That’s a Problem
You don't need to be sentient to play chess, but you do need to be sentient to understand sentience. If our programmable machines did understand suffering, then an "End suffering!" utility function would suffice. Humans would soon be outperformed at the task, just as we are at chess. But programmable digital computers are zombies. They don't understand pain and pleasure. That said, if we can identify the molecular signature of experience below "hedonic zero", then machine intelligence could aid its eradication even in the absence of any deep understanding of consciousness.
A meeting of minds?
"This is a most exhilarating book on a theme of major impact nowadays: artificial intelligence. It consists in a series of essays by prominent contributors from institutions all over the world such as Stevan Harnad, David Pearce, Eray Ozkural, Mariana Chinellato Ferreira and Daniel Dennett. Besides, the book covers a wide range of subjects connected to artificial intelligence such as the nature of intelligence, the problem of consciousness, aesthetics and artificial intelligence, neuroethics and the ethics of artificial intelligence. Gouveia´s book offers the reader a plethora of in-depth examinations of them in each section of his collection."
(Professor João Teixeira)
“Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures.”
Can we learn to “cheat” responsibly?
("When machine learning systems jolt their reward centers by cheating")
"Enlightenment"? Loss of a sense of self can feel either unpleasant (depersonalisation) or awesome (mystical enlightenment). On the whole, depressives tend to have a weaker sense of self than happy folk, and manic egomaniacs the strongest of all. I’m envious of people who report experiencing enlightenment, but I’m not convinced enlightenment can cheat the hedonic treadmill. Also, science and sociopolitical reform are hard work. Developing a new antidepressant or gene-therapy trial is arduous and collaborative.
That said, I wish there were Buddha pills.
I’d swallow them daily.
The admirable Jason Silva has an enviable zest for life. HI gets a plug. Good!
Can we reprogram our nervous systems?
One challenge to creating a motivational architecture based entirely on information-sensitive gradients of bliss may be that “...evolutionary simulations suggest that performance-driven positive affect alone is not as effective in motivating an agent as an alternation of positive and negative affective states, brought about, respectively, by successes and failures” (I’m quoting from https://arxiv.org/pdf/2002.05652.pdf who cite Gao, Y., and S. Edelman. 2016b. Happiness as an intrinsic motivator in reinforcement learning. Adaptive. Behavior 24: 292–30).
I don’t know if this analysis is always true. Compare euphoric mania. Either way, we know from high-functioning, non-manic outliers today that life based entirely on gradients of bliss is feasible. Known biases can be quantified and corrected for.
[on compassionate biology]
In front of a conservative audience, one will generally start with a Biblical quote, most often the "peaceable kingdom" of Isaiah 11-6-7.
"The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the goat;
the calf and young lion and fatling will be together,
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will graze with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox".
The Bible is a bit light on the technical details. But we can now fill them in - some of them at any rate. Whether one views ending the snuff-movie of Darwinian life as the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy, modern-day Techno-Buddhism or practical utilitarian ethics is a matter of taste....
Mormon Transhumanist Conference 2020
Just as believers and disbelievers in the Simulation Hypothesis can debate political policy options together, likewise theists and agnostics / atheists can mutually explore how we should use biotech and AI most wisely. In my contribution (PDF), I didn’t engage in theological debate. Rather, I just asked in what ways a benevolent God / Simulator / Superintelligence would want us to use these technologies now that the level of suffering in the biosphere is an adjustable parameter. For example, the “peaceable kingdom” prophesied by Isaiah may or may not be divinely inspired; Christians and secular scientific rationalists differ. But insofar as we believe that the lion and wolf should lie down with the lamb - whether literally and/or figuratively - biotech gives us the tools for the job.
Thanks Alex. In fairness, Brian Tomasik is deeply sceptical:
But if Brian is right and we don't (or can't) use synthetic gene drives to prevent free-living animal suffering, then I'm at a loss how we can help e.g. humble creatures in marine ecosystems or the Amazonian rainforest - short of retiring Darwinian ecosystems altogether. I used to invoke sci-fi Drexlerian nanobots etc. But even such high-tech proposals don't penetrate the biological genetic-heart of the problem.
There can be no hive mind while sentient beings hurt, harm and kill each other:
Foresight Hive Mind
"We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”
(Star Trek, 'First Contact')
Krista and Tatiana understand something the rest of us don't:
Krista and Tatiana Hogan
[on depression and the opioid system]
Can we cure depression without targeting the neurotransmitter signalling system most directly implicated in positive hedonic tone?
Depression and the opioid system
("Endogenous opioid system dysregulation in depression: implications for new therapeutic approaches")
[on the computer metaphor of mind]
Like everything from the stock market to a termite colony, our brains are information processors. Yet our brains are not classical digital computers, nor classically parallel connectionist systems, nor are they universal quantum computers.
So what are they?
Well, what classical computers can’t do is phenomenally bind: the bedrock of mental life since the late pre-Cambrian.
Phenomenal binding is insanely computationally powerful. Many researchers don’t recognise the power of local and global binding because they are still in thrall to perceptual naive realism.
If your CNS couldn’t support binding, then you couldn’t function any better than when dreamlessly asleep. When you’re dreamlessly asleep, your brain is still an immensely sophisticated information processor. Your neurons may still support rudimentary experience. But you’re helpless.
How is phenomenal binding possible?
Well, if (1) the intrinsic nature argument is true and (2) if unitary-only quantum mechanics is correct (as urged by David Deutsch above) then the outline of an explanation can be given:
But that's another story.
I found this answer really disturbing. It makes no sense to "blame" someone for what nature made them. But such cases confirm my belief that Darwinian life is malware - and illustrate the dilemmas of a classical utilitarian account of (dis)value:
What is it like to be a sadist?
“Be thankful for everything that happens in your life; it’s all an experience.”
Unlike being discontented, counting one's blessings isn't genetically adaptive...
Carlos, sorry for my reticence about Wilhelm Reich’s work; it’s not (just) British reserve and prudery. If we can re-engineer our minds, then free love will be fantastic: physical, emotional and even spiritual affection for all sentient beings. See too: https://www.hedweb.com/ecstasy/ecstasy-honesty.html But at least until we develop safe and sustainable analogues of MDMA, polyamory in humans is typically a recipe for disaster. In my view, robolovers and sexbots are probably better for the sexually frustrated than (human) orgies.
Reality doesn’t come in degrees, but our feelings of (un)reality come on a sliding scale.
It All A Dream?
("Why Coronavirus Makes Us Question Reality. If you're spacing out or questioning everything that's happening, it could be your mind's way of coping with the stress.")
[on the Simulation Hypothesis]
The Simulation Hypothesis gets its bite from the Simulation Argument. Various people before Nick Bostrom had idly wondered whether the physical universe could be a computer simulation. The Simulation Argument was the first formulation of the idea that gave grounds for believing the conjecture might actually be true.
However, the Simulation Argument has suppressed premises, for example that the intrinsic nature argument is false (cf. Qualia and the natural sciences) and instead that subjects of experience can “emerge” at different levels of computational abstraction.
Rather than (just) getting stuck into the Simulation Argument itself, I think it would be good if some of the suppressed premises were set out clearly. There are others!
None of these reservations detract from my respect for Nick's (or Alex's!) work:
NB on Joe Rogan
If you entertain weird ideas (e.g. life based on superhuman bliss, non-materialist physicalism) try attributing them to a hypothetical advanced civilisation:
Is consciousness a field?
One can be a consciousness fundamentalist and have a precise mathematical model. Simply transpose the mathematical apparatus of physics to an idealist ontology, i.e. physicalistic idealism. On this story, the world consists of fields of sentience rather than insentience. What makes biological minds special is phenomenal binding. Although this isn’t Donald Hoffman’s view, I find myself using his “interface icon” metaphor for brains. The physicalist shouldn’t be surprised at the partial structural mismatch between our minds and a mere interface icon. Conversely, if we did directly perceive brains, then physicalism would be false: a pack of classical neurons can’t be identical with a unified subject of experience.
Yes, the term “idealism” has a lot of baggage. Especially if used in the context of quantum mechanics, the term evokes anti-realism or “consciousness collapses the wavefunction” (etc). But one can be a realist, a physicalist and indeed a wavefunction monist and conjecture that the mysterious “fire” in the universal Schrödinger equation is experiential. (I overuse Hawking’s metaphor for the intrinsic nature of the physical, but it’s probably better than talking of Kant’s “noumenal essence of the world”)
Traditional panpsychism and non-materialist physicalism are intuitively absurd because they make the “psychon” absurdly small. Much less discussed is an equally absurd consequence: the “psychon” must be absurdly short-lived. If the lifetime of individual neuronal superpositions (“cat states”) in the CNS were milliseconds, then such individual states would be an elegant solution to the binding problem that originally caused Phil Goff to reject panpsychism. The effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions is less than femtoseconds. This sort of timescale would normally be treated as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind. But if the intrinsic nature argument is correct and unitary-only quantum mechanics is true, then neuronal superpositions must be phenomenally-bound states of consciousness. Probing the CNS at this kind of temporal resolution via interferometry will reveal either “noise” - or the non-classical interference signature of perfect structural match with our minds. In other words, this is a scientific rather than philosophical question.
Jeremy, first, sorry I meant to say, excellent paper/essay! Before plunging in with a critique, I wanted to clarify a few things. Yes, "idealism" is sometimes used to refer to the view that all reality is grounded in mental states. But as far as I can tell, this view can't be reconciled with physicalism. Five billion years ago there weren’t any phenomenally-bound minds running world-simulations, whereas there were quantum fields.
However, "idealism" can also refer to the view that the intrinsic nature of reality is experiential, i.e. QFT describes fields of sentience rather than sentience. If conjoined with physicalism, i.e. no “element of reality” is missing from the mathematical formalism of (tomorrow's) physics, then we have physicalistic idealism / non-materialist physicalism. On this view, what makes our minds special isn’t consciousness per se - consciousness is the intrinsic nature of the physical - but rather non-psychotic phenomenal binding.
Like you, I believe that what naive realism treats as one’s external surroundings is an autobiographical phenomenal world-simulation. However, I'm agnostic about physicalistic idealism / non-materialist physicalism. Maybe - as common sense suggests - the world's primordial quantum fields are fields of insentience. If so, then we face the impossible Hard Problem.
Says Istvan: ‘I still prefer a good cup of coffee to anything else.’” Coffee is still supreme: life-extending, mood-brightening, intellect-enhancing, a foretaste of transhuman civilisation of superlongevity, superhappiness and superintelligence. (I drink nine or ten cups a day, which may colour my judgement.)
Thorny question about transhumanist politics: do you think it (un)reasonable that any future candidate for political office should not just set out their policy platform, but also give a candid assessment of their own mental health / stability? Yes, there are obviously huge privacy implications here. But there are lots of ways that people who aren't very psychologically robust (and I’d include myself!) can contribute to the transhumanist movement that don't involve a political role.
“I am a 21st century person who was accidentally launched in the 20th. I have a deep nostalgia for the future.”
The frozen father of modern #transhumanism was a lifelong vegetarian who “wouldn’t eat anything that had a mother”.
("2030 — A wonderful new film about an iconoclastic visionary")
DP on FM-2030
Vlad, just a note on value anti-realism. If pressed, perhaps most transhumanists would indeed say they are anti-realists. Value judgements aren’t true of false. Ultimately, value judgements aren't any different from expressions of support for one's football team - and hostility to their opponents. "Hurrah!" for transhumanism; "Boo!" to bioconservatives. However, a minority of religious AND secular transhumanists are realists about (dis)value. Now you might think: that's crazy. Any scientifically literate person “ought” to be an anti-realist. Surely, it's obvious that (dis)value is mind-dependent! But recall how phenomenal colour, for instance, is mind-dependent too. This mind-dependence doesn't make colour any less an objective feature of physical reality. Likewise objectively (dis)valuable experience. Anyhow, I'm not (here) trying to persuade you that (dis)value can be naturalised. I’m just observing that the claim all transhumanists are value anti-realists needs to be qualified.
A conservative critique of transhumanism by the anti-feminist Argentinian critic Agustín Laje
Agustín Laje interview
Miklos Lukacs also interviewed me (DP interview), but alas I had to answer in English with subtitles.
Should humanists become transhumanists?
DP talks to Dorset Humanists
ZOOM transhumanism: "The Future of Sentience: Should we edit our genetic code?"
I could only ever think of one argument for why a benevolent god would create such a monstrous world. This was that the creator isn’t omnipotent. Our pain-ridden horror-show is being run to prevent or mitigate some yet greater evil of which we know nothing. I don’t believe in such a fantasy. A fundamental logico-physical principle that explains our existence (cf. https://www.quora.com/Why-is-there-something-and-not-just-nothingness ) strikes me as more credible than theological stories. But questions similar to traditional theodicy arise if one takes the Simulation Hypothesis seriously (cf. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument). I argue instead for the quantum version of the intrinsic nature argument (cf. https://www.quora.com/How-do-consciousness-realists-who-believe-the-universe-is-physical-define-physical)). If it’s sound, we’ve living in basement reality. But the intrinsic nature argument may be wrong.
[on paradise engineering]
Biotechnology promises a blissful future of paradise engineering.
Will a biohappiness revolution depend on the growth of universal love and compassion?
Or a messianic billionaire who hopes to be immortalised in the name of a new evolutionary era?
Egomaniacs or selfless Buddhas?
Whatever it takes...
A Future for Humanity
[on climate change]
“If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember.”
(Terry Pratchett, 'Lords and Ladies')
Cats are as murderous as humans. We need a blueprint for a civilised biosphere and an action plan to implement it. Piecemeal interventions and crisis-management won’t work.
Cats are making Australia's bushfire tragedy worse
[on extreme longevity]
Archicentenarians casts a more sceptical eye than Guinness on supercentenarian claims. But the Sarah Knauss case (119 years) is looking solid.
Sarah Knauss (Archicentenarians).
Less so Madame Calment:
Jeanne / Yvonne Calment
Why Women Live Longer
[on genetic bliss]
"for women and men"
I thought this was an Andrés Photoshop job, but no...
“Perfumes are the feelings of flowers.”
Time to civilise animal genomes.
“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
Brain Health Benefits Of Dancing
("Regular dancing reduced the risk of dementia by 76%, which was twice as much as reading.")
When? Ben, lamely, I don’t know. Bodies should be replaceable indefinitely by the middle of this century (cf. https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a30317686/head-transplants/), but what about the transition to ageless mind-brains? Our ignorance here is profound. Presumably there will be revolutionary breakthroughs - by their nature unknowable - but how do we escape the need for well-controlled prospective human trials of therapeutic interventions that by their nature will take decades to play out? And what is our analysis of personal identity? (cf. Ultra-Parfitianism).
I don’t believe “mind uploading” is viable, though insentient digital mindfiles for backup and restoration purposes will be feasible.
Given my pessimism about timescales, I regret how the SENS and the cryonics/cryothanasia strategies aren’t tightly integrated. In my view, opt-out cryonics and opt-in cryothanasia should be the norm.
I intend to be cryothanased - though not quite yet! - not because I’m convinced that post-human superintelligence will want to reanimate Darwinian malware, but rather because I think transhumanists should set an example. It’s almost cruel telling people science will find a cure for aging - probably just a few decades after they are gone.
“Yea, all things live forever, though at times they sleep and are forgotten.” (H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure)
A brief history of Russian transhumanism:
The Collective Body
("Russian experiments in life after death")
Intriguing! But what exactly are the constituents of the “plasma fraction treatment”?
("dual species measurement of epigenetic age with a single clock")
Do the treated rats live longer - or just display some encouraging biomarkers?
[on a zero ontology]
Alas the quantum Library of Babel lacks an index or a Librarian - and could benefit from a censor:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
Heartbreaking. And of course lots of people with complex regional pain syndrome don't get Moana's level of treatment. It's just another reason why we should aim long-term for universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling (though the genetic predisposition to CRPS isn't well-understood):
Girl with complex regional pain syndrome
“I believe that most of us tend to underrate the evilness of suffering. The reason is that it is difficult for us, when not actually suffering, to recollect what suffering really is. We employ numerous psychological mechanisms to conceal from our consciousness the true nature or meaning of suffering, to falsify and deny it. We do this without renouncing the word, however. The word comes to designate, in our minds, only a faint copy or superficial image of the real thing; but having forgotten what the original is, we mistake it in the copy. We ascribe to “suffering” a certain gravity of evil; but it is slight compared to what we would ascribe to suffering itself, if we could only recall its true meaning. (…)"
The falsification of suffering is everywhere — in movies, in poetry, in novels, on the nightly news. Accounts of disaster routinely veer from a discussion of the agony and plight of the victims (which quickly becomes tiresome) to the description of some moving act of kindness or bravery. Often it is these descriptions that affect us the most and that provoke the greatest outburst of emotion. These are the images we often take away and that become our image of “suffering.” Suffering comes to be closely associated with stirring images of hope in adversity, acts of moral heroism and touching kindness, gestures of human dignity, sentiments of noble sympathy and tremulous concern, the comfort and consolation of tears. It turns into something beautiful. It becomes poetry. People begin to refer to “sublime suffering.” Suffering, in other words, becomes just exactly what it is not.”
(“Suffering and Moral Responsibility” (1999) by Jamie Mayerfeld)
What a ghastly but apt quote. I wonder to what extent progress in mitigating and preventing suffering depends on people who “underrate the evilness of suffering”? Glimpsing its full horror leads to madness or despair, not action. Treating it dispassionately as a technical problem to be fixed with biotech is more fruitful.
The Family That Feels Almost No Pain
Saagar, lots of issues here. For instance, most people with (complete or partial) insensitivity to pain seem to be unsually cheerful. Compare Jo Cameron with her dual FAAH and FAAH-OUT mutations. Are there under-explored links between an absence of "physical” and mental pain? However, one reason I've focused mainly on the SCN9A gene ("the volume knob for pain": https://www.wired.com/2017/04/the-cure-for-pain/) in human and nonhuman animals rather than Marsili syndrome is that although nonsense mutations of SCN9A induce congenital insensitivity to pain, dozens of functional mutations are known too. Different functional alleles of SCN9A confer varying levels of pain-sensitivity (cf. How much do our pain thesholds differ?). So in principle, prospective parents can choose the dial-settings of their offspring. Giving all new children the pain tolerance of today's high-functioning genetic outliers ("Pain is just a useful signalling system!") could defang physical suffering as it exists in the world today. From an NU purist’s perspective, yes, we want to abolish any kind of hedonically sub-zero state. High-functioning total pain-freedom should be possible next century and beyond with smart neuroprostheses, etc. But in the meantime if we can give new life the pain tolerance of today’s genetically luckiest high-functioning 0.1%, then problem of pain won’t be morally urgent in the way it is now.
Of course, lots of pitfalls await us in a “low pain” transitional regime. Most obviously, don’t pain-tolerant people take more risks? Yet exuberant life lovers also tend to be keenest on safeguarding their health and longevity, whereas pain-ridden depressives are prone to self-neglect. Their life-expectancy is shorter. So it’s complicated. Either way, I think we need a debate about how much suffering we want to permit. Let us pray...
The OFF switch for pain
("Scientists find brain center that 'profoundly' shuts down pain")
DP at HowTheLightGetsIn
a DP ZOOM talk on the abolitionist project: pdf
[on quantum mind and the binding problem]
Is the brain a quantum computer? by Manuel Brenner
Many thanks for an extremely lucid overview. May I just make one comment?
You remark, “The world really looks very classical in almost every aspect of our lives”. Yet you also note the binding problem. Instead of discrete, membrane-bound “pixels” of neuronal experience, we instead experience classical-looking objects populating a classical-looking world, i.e. what philosophers call the unity of perception. One could indeed say “The world really looks very classical” if perceptual direct realism were true. But although I agree with you that classicality is true of the content of our phenomenal world-simulations, I don’t think classicality is obviously true of the neuronal vehicle of our world-simulations — the neuronal vehicle that somehow generates the phenomenally-bound objects of our everyday experience.
How is binding feasible? If (fancifully!) the effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors in the CNS were milliseconds, then neuronal superpositions would be the obvious candidate for a perfect structural match between the classical-seeming perceptual objects of everyday experience and the underlying physics. Two classically impossible kinds of holism are one-and-the-same. But as you say, theorists such as Max Tegmark have done the calculations. The raw power of decoherence means that individual neuronal superpositions can’t last milliseconds; their effective lifetime must be less than femtoseconds! Such a timescale makes quantum weirdness intuitively irrelevant.
I agree. However, one person’s reductio ad absurdum is another person’s experimentally falsifiable prediction:
No binding = no suffering
Functionally Effective Conscious AI Without Suffering by Aman Agarwal and Shimon Edelman.
HI regulars here will know of my scepticism of digital sentience:
But until we understand consciousness and binding, it’s important to acknowledge one could be catastrophically mistaken.
Stuart, yes, what explains this "Minimal Phenomenal Experience"? Why isn't it shared by, say, the enteric nervous system (the "brain-in-the-gut"). Or is it?! But as you know, my ideas on consciousness and phenomenal binding are idiosyncratic.
This is not quite as damning a confession as it sounds. For all the options are weird (cf. http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2011/07/crazyism.html). But if digital sentience is feasible, i.e. if I'm wrong, then the nature of s-risks changes too.
Tim, I promise I don't think human consciousness is special. The ability of organic nervous systems to run phenomenally-bound world-simulations that masquerade as the outside world is the greatest computational feat of biological life over the past 540 million years. A lot of researchers confuse the thin stream of logico-linguistic thought-episodes behind one's virtual forehead with consciousness itself. But serial logico-linguistic thought is a late evolutionary novelty - an innovation that allows some high AQ/IQ humans to create programmable digital computers. Without phenomenal binding, classical computers and classically parallel connectionist systems are just microexperiential zombies. Sure, workarounds exist for the inability of classical computers to support local binding, i.e. what humans would call the experience of individual perceptual objects. But global binding? How does one program the digital zombie counterpart of the unity of the self? I wouldn't know where to start.
Tim, if materialist physicalism is correct, we should be p-zombies.
If textbook neuroscience is correct, we should be (at most) micro-experiential zombies.
If the synchronic unity of the self were just a homogenous experience, then phenomenal binding wouldn’t be much use. However, imagine someone with both simultanagnosia and akinetopsia (“motion blindness”). When watching a football match within their world-simulation, they still have local binding. Yet whereas you and I see 22 dynamic football players on a pitch, they can see only one player - a player who doesn’t move, but merely pops up in different positions within their visual field. And even with this dual handicap, our unfortunate spectator is still better off watching a game than a micro-experiential zombie with no binding at all.
Tim, I’m assuming wavefunction monism (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_function) and the decoherence program (Zeh, Zurek etc). The reason materialism and physicalism are so often conflated is that most wavefunction monists from Hugh Everett to Sean Carroll make an additional philosophical assumption, namely that the mathematical formalism of QFT describes fields of insentience (cf. Is consciousness a field?). This gives rise to the insoluble Hard Problem. Drop the metaphysical assumption. We now have an empirically adequate theory of immense explanatory and predictive power. What distinguishes our minds from the rest of physical reality isn’t consciousness but phenomenal binding.
Is non-materialist physicalism true?
I don’t know.
* * *
Are rocks conscious? Assume, as the intrinsic nature argument proposes, that subjective experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. We now need to "carve Nature at the joints." What we call rocks - and other dynamically stable macroscopic patterns that (weakly) emerge from quantum bedrock in the mind-independent world - are incoherent mixtures, not coherent superpositions. Rocks are no more unified subjects of experience than the stock market or the weather.
By contrast, superfluid helium, for instance, is a single simple macroscopic experience.
As I said, crazy stuff!
We’ll never know what (if anything) it’s like to be an individual experience of superfluid helium. So naively, it’s “just philosophy”. But this reaction is too quick. If what neuroscanning plus perceptual naïve realism call binding by synchrony in the CNS are individual neuronal superpositions, then the interference signature of molecular matter-wave interferometry will tell us. Chalmers’ alleged partial “structural mismatch” will turn out to be an artifact of today’s primitive tools of investigation. Gross multi-millisecond temporal resolutions are too crude.
Or alternatively, a crazy idea bites the dust!
Not all the novel predictions of a hypothesis need be empirically falsifiable, but at least one should be – ideally by prior consent of proponents and critics alike. That's why I focus on phenomenal binding in the CNS, not superfluid helium.
The most recent academic convert to the intrinsic nature argument is Phil Goff, here in conversation with an equally incredulous Massimo Pigliucci:
Letter | Thoughtful Conversation
Thanks Jeremy. Predictions? If physicalistic idealism is true, then neuroscientists must be mistaken about the temporally fine-grained microstructure of the awake mind-brain. (Yes, this is quite a bold claim.) We aren't packs of decohered neurons. If physicalistic idealism is true, then what perceptual naïve realism calls binding via synchrony - a mere restatement of the mystery - must be quantum-coherent superpositions of distributed feature-processors. Contra David Chalmers, a "Schrodinger's neurons" conjecture predicts that the non-classical interference signature of molecular matter-wave interferometry will yield a perfect structural match - not in four-dimensional spacetime, but the fundamental high-dimensional space required by the dynamics of the wavefunction. To stress, I don't "believe" the conjecture is true, merely that it needs (dis)confirmation by the normal tools of science, i.e. interferometry. Most people who contemplate the timescales involved - the effective lifetime of individual neuronal superpositions in the warm, wet CNS must be less than femtoseconds - think "That's crazy!"
And I think so too....
Predictions of physicalistic idealism?
What's good here is that different theories make different empirically falsifiable predictions. For instance, I predict that replacing colour-mediating neurons in the CNS with silicon surrogates will induce achromatopsia. Subjects will report that perceptual objects no longer look colourful. Admittedly, if this prediction is borne out, then the functionalist may respond that the substitution can’t have been as faithful as supposed - the silicon or virtual neurons weren't faithful functional duplicates after all. And ultimately, I'd agree. Instead of being “substrate chauvinism”, the conjecture that phenomenal binding is a manifestation of quantum coherence is itself a functionalist theory. But either way - and despite the complications - these are empirically testable claims rather than just philosophical opinions.
[on mood and mood disorders]
Is depressive realism bad for your cognitive health?
When will medical science deliver smart mood-brighteners?
Negative thinking / Alzheimers
Darwinian life has only losers, but some lose less badly than others
This Gene Mutation Causes Some People to Feel Naturally High
("Anandamide is named for the Sanskrit word for bliss")
Bipolarity and creativity
("Creativity and bipolar disorder: Touched by fire or burning with questions?") Tragically, around 20% of bipolars take their own lives. Maybe 50% or 60% attempt suicide at least once. These stats are just the tip of an ocean of misery.
In a free society, everyone should be allowed to choose their own hedonic range. What's ethically problematic is creating new babies who will suffer - and suffer terribly - when hedonic range becomes a genetically adjustable parameter. In my view, access to preimplantation genetic screening, counselling and (soon) genome editing should be universal.
The greatest feeling ever?
Or a vital clue to the development of safe and effective mood-brighteners?
Classical utilitarianism is a recipe for human extinction.
Should we optimise matter and energy for pure bliss or conserve complex life?
[on idealism and psychedelia]
Two “idealist” conjectures are worth distinguishing:
1) Everything you're ever known, from solid-seeming material objects to your friends and family, are part of the architecture of your mind and the phenomenal world-simulation it runs. Billions of other skull-bound world-simulations exist too, running in nearly real-time, differing mainly in the identity of their protagonist - the egocentric illusion is genetically adaptive.
2) The intrinsic nature of the inaccessible mind-independent world is experiential. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience not insentience. Phenomenally-bound minds are around 540 million years old, but primordial consciousness is 13.8 billion years old.
In my view, we have good grounds for (1) whereas (2) is speculative - though it's also my working hypothesis. Contrary to what one often reads, both conjectures are consistent with the conceptual framework of monistic physicalism, i.e. no "element of reality" is missing from the mathematical formalism of physics.
Taking psychedelics will scramble your entire world-simulation, your serial stream of logico-linguistic thought, and your entire phenomenal self. Rare exceptions aside, psychedelic use does not contribute to knowledge as understood by the drug-naïve scientific community. But this downbeat-sounding judgement obscures the significance of psychedelics. It’s almost impossible to overstate their intellectual significance IMO – though I’ve personally retired from research into wordy scholasticism... Psychedelics and Rationality
A project of creating seed biological superintelligence using an army of genetically tweaked and recursively self-improving von Neumann clones sounds super-cool. But what are we optimising?
Recall how the prototype advocated "pre-emptive" use of thermonuclear weapons on Russia..."If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o' clock, I say why not one o' clock?"
("The Passing of a Great Mind" by Clay Blair, Jr., LIFE Magazine [25 February 1957], p. 96)
No doubt the hothousing could be civilised. But who would be in charge? One doesn't need to be science fiction enthusiast to imagine ways the project could all go horribly wrong - the biological equivalent of the AI-in-a-box fable is only the crudest that springs to mind.
[on sentient quantum computers]
Will sentient nonbiological computers have a pleasure-pain axis?
Adam, yes, whereas phenomenal binding is classically impossible - as far as I can tell - nothing in our existing understanding rules out that a non-biological quantum computer could support not just binding, but also a pleasure-pain axis. My reasons for scepticism are more tentative. Compare the restrictive kinds of sub-neuronal structure that mediate, say, phenomenal colour in a small sub-population of neurons in biological nervous systems. Phenomenal binding allows us to see all sorts of colourful objects in our world-simulations. However, a small lesion affecting those neurons can induce cerebral achromatopsia. The (unknown) macro-molecular structures distinctive of colour neurons seem to be necessary to colour experience - and perhaps highly specific. This isn’t a question of whether a classical or non-biological quantum computer could ever simulate their typical functional role in biological minds, but rather whether phenomenal colour - and more importantly, a pleasure-pain axis - ever could be instantiated in a different substrate. My guess is no - but then, my whole theory of consciousness, phenomenal binding and the intrinsic nature of the physical may be wrong too!
"To desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake.”
Transhumanists want to correct life’s biological mistakes.
DP interview (text) by Immortalists Magazine.
"No selfie control"?
But maybe the editor's avatar is more evocative of the paradise I write about than the author.
[on HI and polyamory]
Jon, very many thanks for the feedback. You've certainly given me pause for thought! I'm personally prudish and a lifelong celibate - more "British" than you could imagine. And I think that polyamory - if attempted with our existing traditional Darwinian genome - is typically a recipe for disaster. For evolutionary reasons, a great many men especially would (and do) sleep around if they can; but many women, in particular, are not "designed" that way. On the infrequent occasions I've ever been asked for advice, I've always said "Don't!"
So far, so Victorian.
Where we may differ - I'm not sure - is the future.
1. Emotional promiscuity.
Today, we take it for granted that we can't really love most people. Perhaps one is "in" love with a single person or sometimes two - a treacherous minefield. But towards the rest of humanity, the most that one can hope to muster is some sort of diffuse benevolence. We take this quasi-psychopathic indifference to our fellow creatures for granted. It's been genetically adaptive. However, there are "hug drugs" and "love drugs" that temporarily induce feelings of profound love for everyone. I don't now urge people to take them. Not least, they are short-acting, they have too many side-effects, and they kick the brain's negative feedback mechanisms into gear. Darwinian quasi-psychopathy soon returns with a vengeance. But in our re-engineered future, occupying such states of universal love will be feasible indefinitely. What should be our model for future civilisation? Ideally, how much affection should we feel towards each other? I think our overriding ethical priority should be minimising and then abolishing suffering. But hasn't universal (promiscuous?) emotional love has been the ideal of the saints - and indeed of life in Heaven?
However, it's possible I've misinterpreted what you mean by "promiscuous".
I don't think love should be indiscriminate - hence my stress on information-sensitive gradients of well-being rather than uniform bliss.
2. Sexual promiscuity.
If people didn't experience feelings of jealousy, insecurity and "ownership" of each other, then would states of bodily bliss, erotic or otherwise, ever be morally objectionable? IMO, what's (often) bad today isn't such pleasures per se, but how they can indirectly cause harm to others unless tightly regulated by societal and (sometimes) legal norms. In future, if two people / transhumans decide they want to enjoy a "traditional" exclusive relationship indefinitely, then I certainly wouldn't try to dissuade them. On the contrary - indeed, biotech can help. What sad and sometimes tragic now is how so many people are conflicted - or who have a partner who is conflicted. Recall how many people today are physically frustrated - often over many decades. If in future the sexually frustrated can enjoy all sorts of bodily/erotic delights without harming others, even indirectly, will such pleasures be wrong? If they can enjoy superhuman eroticism, will such otherworldly eroticism be wrong? Maybe from a theological standpoint, such pleasures are sinful. But as you know, I've generally steered clear of religious disputation and focused on what secular rationalists and religious believers have in common.
Maybe I should indeed re-read some of my stuff and add more "health warnings". To be honest, I'm more used to being teased for my traditionalism and prudery than my promotion of sexual license - but maybe this is simply because of the transhumanist / effective altruist circles in which I move, i.e. the proverbial "filter bubble".
[on nonhuman animals]
Smarter, happier and healthier.
But first - above all - shut and outlaw the death-factories.
Animal agriculture is a crime against sentience.
If We Can Make Animals Smarter, Should We?
("In science fiction stories, research can accidentally create superintelligent animal species. As the ability to alter animals’ brains grows, some say we should be wary of fiction becoming reality.")
We are all pretty similar:
("Mice’s facial expressions can reveal a wide range of emotions")
Worms have a pleasure-pain axis and opioid and dopamine neurotransmitter signaling systems:
But contra the Daily Mail
worms probably don't have free will any more than humans. Jack, my intuitive timeline for the abolitionist project was first rescue humans, then other large terrestrial vertebrates, and finally - maybe hundreds of years from now - small terrestrial and marine invertebrates, maybe using Drexlerian nanotech. This may still be the most credible timeline. But from a technical point of view, helping small fast-breeders is actually easier. I was blindsided by the potential of synthetic gene drives (cf. https:/www.gene-drives.com) One can even imagine a scenario in which humans are the last species to undergo involuntary suffering. No, this isn't a prediction - I just like to explore what can be done with recognisable extensions of existing technologies.
[on the meaning of life]
Woody Allen believes that life is meaningless
Is life really meaningless? Or does Woody Allen just not have a high enough "hedonic set-point" to find it meaningful? "Hedonic set-point" is simply the average level of well-being/happiness that a person experiences. This set-point is largely genetically determined and is controlled by the reward circuitry of the brain. Dopaminergic neurons in the mesolimbic pathway mediate "wanting/motivation/meaning" and endorphinergic neurons in the ventral pallidum and the rostromedial shell of the nucleus accumbens mediate "liking/pleasure/reward."
Compare the paradox of hedonism
Intense pleasure feels profoundly meaningful. But the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure tends to feel empty. Compare too the intensity of meaning and significance experienced during euphoric mania. In euphoric mania, life is too meaningful, so to speak - or rather, there is behavioural dyscontrol. HI predicts that the world's last experience below hedonic zero will occur a few centuries(?) from now. But the world's last experience of meaninglessness may be precisely dateable to the same era. The biohappiness revolution will also be "meaning of life" revolution...
"Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
Should we seek happiness or meaning?
Man Doesn't Want Happiness Says Nietzsche
Or will a biohappiness revolution create superhuman significance?
Hedonic uplift will create a superhuman sense of meaning and significance. Will our successors view existential angst as a depressive psychosis of Darwinian life?
If so, I'm severely psychotic...
Existentialism and Meaning
"I used to think drinking was bad, so I stopped thinking." (anon)
A single THC dose can induce psychotic side effects, new review finds.
Fundamentally happy people who take a mind-altering drug will tend to interpret strange experiences as mystical – i.e. a delightful psychosis.
Unhappy people find strange drug-induced experiences weird and disturbing rather than mystical. They may undergo derealisation and depersonalisation - i.e. a nasty psychosis.
Temperamentally anxious people may become panicky as they lose the illusion of control.
The inconsistent effects of cannabis illustrate how cannabinoids are not intrinsically euphoriants, but instead depend for their rewarding action on a “hedonic hotspot” in the shell of the nucleus accumbens (cf. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/can.2018.0021">Endocannabinoid-Enhanced “Liking” in Nucleus Accumbens Shell Hedonic Hotspot Requires Endogenous Opioid Signals
By contrast, no one (to my knowledge) dislikes selective mu-opioidergic activation of their hedonic hotspot in the NAc: it’s much closer to the (unknown) molecular signature of pure bliss:
The fate of the universe
A recipe for mass euphoria or mass psychosis?
("Study indicates vaporized cannabis creates drug-seeking behavior")
("The Role of the Cannabinoid System in Opioid Analgesia and Tolerance")
[on ethics and the Borg]
Great essay! A long time ago, I recall reading of a laboratory experiment. The subject's brain was locally exposed via surgery. The surgeon stimulated one small region of the premotor cortex with microelectrodes. The subject's hand lifted up. "Wow" said the subject. “You did that.” The surgeon then stimulated an adjacent area. "I decided to move my hand", the subject reported after his arm rose up.
Neuroscience should be able to identify the molecular signature(s) of felt volition and then massively purify, amplify and enrich everyone's will. Transhumans and posthumans could well have superhuman willpower. Today, happiness is correlated with a strong sense of agency, freedom, and self-efficacy. Mesolimbic dopamine function is critical. People in the grip of euphoric mania can achieve otherwise humanly impossible feats – which may be one reason why an otherwise maladaptive predisposition to mania or bipolarity evolved. Either way, science should be able vastly to increase our “empirical” free will - as distinct from its dubious metaphysical cousin.
In Principia Qualia (a), Mike Johnson tries to answer the question of why we have the illusion that qualia have causal power. He argues that:
“the brain is a complex, chaotic, coalition-based dynamic system with well-defined attractors and a high level of criticality (low activation energy needed to switch between attractors) that has an internal model of self-as-agent, yet can’t predict itself. And I think any conscious system with these dynamics will have the quale of free will, and have the phenomenological illusion that its qualia have causal power.”
Maybe. But the claim that qualia are causally impotent - a "phenomenological illusion" - assumes that the intrinsic nature argument is false. Alternatively, qualia disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical (cf. https://www.quora.com/How-do-consciousness-realists-who-believe-the-universe-is-physical-define-physical) and phenomenally-bound qualia play an indispensable computational-functional role in our mental lives - qualia computing, so to speak.
If the intrinsic nature argument is wrong and qualia don't really have causal power, then we face not just the Hard Problem of consciousness, but also the mystery of how qualia can induce discussions of their own existence:
How can consciousness be causally effective?
The will to power?
("'Determination' can be induced by electrical brain stimulation")
[on semantic meaning and reference]
Thank you to Andrés for organizing yesterday’s chat!
If we each live in a private world-simulation that masquerades as external reality, how can each of us ever learn a pseudo-public language to communicate with each other? See Wittgenstein’s "beetle in the box" analogy (cf. Wittgenstein's bettle). Or more formally:
Anti private-language argument.
Whether one is a phenomenalist like Hume who believes that we each have access only to the sense-data of our minds, or a believer in the “two worlds” reading of Kant (cf. Kant's two worlds), or a contemporary proponent of the world-simulation model of perception like Steve Lehar or Annti Revonsuo, one needs to give a naturalistic account of semantic meaning and reference. It's tough!
Here is the thought-experiment that used to bug me:
What is the hardest parodox to explain?
[on privacy and recognition]
Not the NYT’s finest hour:
Yes. In fairness, I don't know the NYT side of the story. I guess the problem is that most people want both privacy and more recognition. Why else write if you don't want your perspective to be shared as widely as possible? Almost every blogger, author, and researcher (etc) feels their contribution isn’t fully appreciated. A profile in the NYT sounds...cool. But as soon as a journalist (or biographer etc) starts interviewing e.g. ex-partners (etc), there are bound to be things that come out that the subject doesn't want publicly known. You must have led a very dull life if you've never done anything discreditable or embarrassing.
Anyhow, it still sounds as though the NYT acted unwisely. I hope Slate Star Codex will be back – massively amplified by the Streisand effect!
[on ethics and the Borg]
Reality baffles me. But for reasons science doesn't understand, IMO the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world's inbuilt metric of (dis)value. The Borg knows something humans don't - with the partial exception of the craniopagous Hogan sisters....
What is DP's position on meta-ethics
I'm a naturalist. But my values weren't formed by natural selection. My lab-grown molecular duplicate would concur: agony and despair are bad. Rather, the pain-pleasure axis discloses the world's innate metric of (dis)value.
[on lucid dreaming]
Do any lucid dreamers
Is lucid dreaming real?
also have REM sleep disorder?
Is the behaviour of our extra-cranial bodies just an unwitting by-product of everyday waking psychosis?
Will programmable virtual companions soon become more rewarding than people?
("New AR app will let you model a virtual companion on anyone you want. Hybri plans top add photos of real people to an avatar's face")
LY03005 / ansofaxine is a serotonin–norepinephrine–dopamine triple reuptake inhibitor.
Will it be another false dawn or a valuable new mood-brightener?
Alas, it’s too early to say...
New Hope for Depression on the Horizon
Bad news. Can low mood be defeated without targeting mu opioid receptors?
Mu opioid receptor density and depression
("Brain research sheds light on the molecular mechanisms of depression")
Cynthia, apologies, I should have clarified. If (as I've long feared) targeting the opioid system is critical to developing effective treatments of clinical depression and everyday low mood, then the socio-political challenges as well as the medical difficulties will be gigantic. Opiophobia is endemic. Most drug companies won't take the risk of going down that route. If I could give this study a positive spin, then it highlights the case for making the anomalous tianeptine (cf. https://www.tianeptine.com/) more widely available, and accelerating the development of selective kappa antagonists. But (despite my lazy talk of "opiophobia”) the personal and societal risks of opioid therapy are all too real.
[on music and HI]
"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
Hedonic Recalibration on Soundcloud...
Genius in maths and the physical sciences is linked to genes implicated in the “autistic” dimension of general intelligence:
Genius in the arts is linked to genes implicated in bipolarity:
("You don't have to be bipolar to be a genius; but it helps
Study reveals that high-achievers are far more likely to be manic depressives")
I'm agnostic about consciousness fundamentalism, but dogmatic about consciousness realism:
Where is consciousness?
"Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”
Was Galileo wrong?
Or is the diversity of experience a vindication of Galileo’s mathematisation of Nature?
Jason, disclaimer: reality baffles me!
a) If consciousness does not disclose the intrinsic nature of the physical, them not just materialism, but also physicalism, is false. This leaves the success of science unexplained. If unitary-only quantum mechanics is true, then Hilbert space, not spacetime, is fundamental.
b) Agreed. Direct realism is false. We run phenomenal world-simulations. But the mind-dependence of our world-simulations doesn't undercut the existence of mind-independent physical reality that existed long before the existence of unified subjects of experience, which date to the late pre-Cambrian.
c) By saying quantum mechanics is complete, we are ruling out "hidden variables" and dynamical collapse theories. Yes, early versions of quantum mechanics have been superseded by quantum field theory - and this is precisely why the phenomenal-binding problem is not fatal to constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism. In QFT, quantum fields - not particles - are fundamental. A particle-based ontology can't explain why we aren't mere patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust”.
("Will Conscious Superintelligence Redesign the Universe?)
Thanks Adrian. Awesome video. Question: can we think of any form of non-conscious “narrow” superintelligence that couldn’t be embedded via neurochips in our phenomenal minds / central nervous systems?
Or what does consciousness say about modern science?
What does modern science say about consciousness?
(I recently had a long phone chat with Jacy Reese, who will shortly be publishing "Consciousness doesn't exist, but that's OK". Consensus is proving elusive.)
Perceptual naive realism also leads to the measurement problem of QM:
“..our experience is in deep contradiction with the very idea of superposition. We believe that there are determinate facts about the properties of objects that we observe...”
Philosophical Problems in Quantum Mechanics
I know of no such “deep contradiction”. Alternatively, only the superposition principle allows us to experience determinate facts about the properties of objects that we observe:
Jacy, if your argument were that consciousness is real, but many people misunderstand its nature and use the term "consciousness" imprecisely, then I'd agree with you.
But I'm confused.
You say, "First-person experience exists." By my lights, this makes you a consciousness realist! Thus in the course of a day, I have lots of different conscious first-person experiences. When I fall into a dreamless sleep at night, consciousness is either a) extinguished altogether or b) phenomenal binding is lost. I don’t know which alternative is true; but either way, when dreamlessly asleep I cease to be a conscious subject of experience.
I conjecture I'm typical. Pigs, dogs and other humans have conscious experiences too; and likewise they lose consciousness when they fall dreamlessly asleep. Maybe the consciousness of other creatures is quite different from mine; and maybe there are exotic modes of consciousness that humans can’t conceive. But this possibility doesn’t impugn the reality of consciousness in the sense of subjective experience. Whether a jellyfish - or a jellyfish ganglion – can feel pain, for instance, is unknown. But there is a fact of the matter even if humans don’t know it. Less ambiguously, a rock or a toaster or (I would say) a classical digital computer is not conscious. They can’t feel pain (etc). The insentience of such systems distinguishes them from the minds of biological animals.
I’m never entirely clear whether someone who says they are an eliminativist believes they are making:
(1) a modest point about linguistic usage.
(2) perhaps the most astonishingly bold claim in the whole history of philosophy.
Jacy, if we assume that (1) subjective experience is real and (2) physics describes fields of insentience, then we face an apparently unbridgeable "explanatory gap" (cf. Explanatory Gap (Wikipedia)) and the Hard Problem.
In a bid to solve the Hard Problem, a few researchers (eliminativists/antirealists) disavow (1). Other researchers (panpsychists/nonmaterialist physicalists) disavow (2).
Eliminativism/antirealism in sense (1) invites the incredulity of e.g. Galen Strawson (cf. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/13/the-consciousness-deniers/). Naturally, plenty of scientists find (2) panpsychism/non-materialist physicalism, incredible too. But it's not crazy in the same way, i.e. it's not inconsistent with one's subjective experience; rather, it's just extremely far-fetched:
Cracking the Hard Problem
Jacy, I'm still not confident I understand your position well enough to offer an intelligent critique. But I (now) appreciate that you are not arguing for eliminativism in (1). If you do describe your position as eliminativist, then I suspect a lot of people will mistakenly assume you are denying their subjective experience - and respond accordingly!
Perhaps consider biological life. It's diverse. The boundaries of life are ambiguous, leading to imprecision in application of the term "life" to viruses. But all life reduces to molecular biology and hence to chemistry and physics. Now consider subjective experience. It's diverse. The boundaries of subjective experience are ambiguous, leading to uncertainty whether the term "subjective experience" should be applied to the faint inner lives of organisms like jellyfish. But regardless of the diversity of subjective experience, and regardless of our uncertainty whether simple animals undergo it, subjective experience is not reducible to molecular biology and hence to chemistry and physics. In other words, I can't derive the properties of what I’m undergoing right now from a materialist ontology. And regardless of how similar or different is the subjective first-person experience of other people to mine, other subjects can’t derive their subjective experience from physics either. Hence the "explanatory gap" and the Hard Problem.
If (unlike me) there is nothing going on inside your head that is irreducible to materialist physics as normally understood, then you don't share my problem...
The Mystery of Consciousness by Sam Harris Is consciousness “only detectable by introspection”?
Alternatively, your phenomenal world-simulation is as much part of your consciousness when you are awake as when you are dreaming. When awake, you may theorise about a wider reality beyond the contents of your mind. But consciousness shouldn’t be identified (just) with introspective self-analysis and a phenomenally thin stream of thought behind one’s virtual forehead.
Could other folk be p-zombies?
If we assume the materialist version of physicalism, i.e. QFT describes fields of insentience, then maybe. However, now we face the Hard Problem of consciousness. Alternatively, non-materialist physicalism is true. If so, p-zombies are impossible because they are un-physical. Only the physical is real. Only the physical is causally effective. This efficacy explains why we have the causal power to discuss our own experiences - a discussion which would otherwise be physically impossible.
Yes, from fish (cf. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/09/fish-cleaner-wrasse-self-aware-mirror-test-intelligence-news/) to various species of social ants (cf. https://scinapse.io/papers/2180773430), some nonhuman animals are capable of feats of self-recognition that surpass small children. But ethically, meta-cognition is a red herring. Our most intense experiences (e.g. uncontrollable panic, agony, orgasmic bliss) are characterised by a lack or breakdown of reflective self-awareness, whereas meta-cognition and higher-order intentionality tend to be phenomenally thin. Crudely speaking, "primitive" experiences matter more.
Another point to weigh is more obvious. We're all prone to self-serving bias (cf. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-carnivores-dilemma/). The fact that one may prefer eating a hamburger to veggieburger doesn't necessarily corrupt one's judgement - any more than owning shares in an alternative meat company necessarily corrupts one's judgement. But the risk of motivated cognition is clearly high - even if (like most people) one is convinced that one is less susceptible than average folk to such bias. So when discussing with fellow EAs any ethical issue in which one has a vested interest, it’s morally prudent - when disagreement arises - to defer to the judgement of those without such a vested interest. In this context, I'm sceptical that any moral agent who has never tasted meat could believe that the vile things humans do to nonhuman animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses are ethically defensible.
Thanks Animal Ethics. Yes, from large terrestrial vertebrates to small, fast-breeding marine invertebrates, all free-living nonhuman animals can in principle be helped with recognisable extensions of existing technologies. Whether the human species will really assume compassionate stewardship of the rest of the living world is still an open question. But when someone says "But there Is no alternative!” (cf. Richard Dawkins - “It must be so.”), we are entitled to respond that the problem of suffering in Nature is fixable.
Bethany, the reaction has mostly been incredulity and ridicule:
But the idea is gaining some scholarly traction e.g.
And recall the idea that sentient beings shouldn't harm each other didn't originate with some madcap transhumanist, but can be found in the Bible:
Hence the quotations in my Mormon Transhumanist presentation:
The biohappiness revolution can be extended to the rest of the living world via genome editing, cross-species fertility-regulation and synthetic gene drives. The entire tree of life is remotely programmable. For sure, pilot studies in self-contained mini-biospheres will be prudent. But post-Darwinian ecosystems won’t resemble today’s obscene snuff-movie. Post-Darwinian ecosystems will be engines of bliss.
A world based on gradients of intelligent bliss - even superhuman bliss - might be less "hedonistic" in one sense than today's world. It all depends on what such a transhuman or posthuman civilisation is primarily focused on - the "aboutness" of thought.
I confess I smiled...which doesn't happen often these days.
(from Dank EA Memes FB group)
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
(Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose)
“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”
(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)
Science and Beauty
("Pretty Ugly: New book explores the science behind our personal tastes")
The most recent academic convert to the intrinsic nature argument is Phil Goff. In his new book "Galileo's Error", Goff defends (cf. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/galileos-big-mistake/) what he'd previously critiqued (cf. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24706312?seq=1). However, I don't think that "Galileo’s declaration that mathematics was to be the language of the new science" was an error. On the contrary, quantum field theory is precisely the mathematical machinery we need to describe consciousness. Transposing the entire mathematical apparatus on modern physics to an idealist ontology takes strong nerves. But non-materialist physicalism is the only theory I know that is consistent with the empirical evidence:
Robert, two distinct positions:
1) Inferential realism
2) Non-materialist physicalism, i.e. QFT describes fields of sentience
Inferential realism (1) is just a fancy name for idea that the external world must be theoretically inferred; it's not observed - as perceptual realists suppose. Within one's phenomenal world simulation, material objects are as much facets of one’s own conscious mind as introspective thought (cf. https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-perception-and-consciousness). Contrast the direct realism of Galen Strawson: https://www.academia.edu/3242047/Real_Direct_Realism_2015
Non-materialist physicalism (2) explains how virtual worlds of experience (1) arise. But as you suggest, non-materialist physicalism may be false.
Maybe instead consciousness is emergent.
But if so, we face the Hard Problem.
"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."
(Howard Aiken) The scientific method relies on empirical evidence:
https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/07/02/just-use-your-thinking-pump/ So it’s frustrating that the empirical evidence (i.e. states of one’s own conscious mind) appears inconsistent with a modern scientific account of matter and energy: Galileo's Error?
Teemu, if we are ever to solve the measurement Problem of QM (cf. The Measurement Problem), the binding problem of neuroscience (cf. The Binding Problem), and the not least the Hard Problem of consciousness (cf. The Hard Problem), then blindingly "obvious" assumptions and presuppositions must be unpacked and examined.
[on why anything exists at all]
Paul, thanks yes, as you know, this line of thought traces back to Ed Tryon's "Is the universe a vacuum fluctuation?" (cf. Edward Tryon - Wikipedia) I think the conjecture of a net-zero energy universe can be recast in information-theoretic terms as an informationless zero ontology - and also made timeless (cf. "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation"). Maybe we'll never understand existence. But if unitary-only QM turns out to be true, then it’s (perhaps!) a tantalising clue to where the ultimate answer lies. Conversely, the falsification of Everettian QM by the stunning confirmation of e.g. a “dynamical collapse” theory would also rule out the "quantum Library of Babel” story.
If the answer does lie elsewhere, I’ve no idea even where to start looking.
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
(Harry J. Anslinger) It's worse in Russia. Pokémon GO for drugs...
[on mourning a pet]
Finn, words can be empty at a time like this. But remember that no one - human or nonhuman - ever gets deleted from spacetime. They just aren’t here. Mourning the absent? Ideally, transhumans will phase out death, aging and disease, thereby making mourning redundant. In the meantime, I normally respond that I would want my death or misfortune to diminish the well-being of friends and family, but I wouldn’t want them to suffer on my account. Should this response be generalised?
[on Brave New World]
“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” (John the Savage / Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)
BNW movie (2020)
I want soma:
Thanks Brent. Most people are implicitly (less often, explicitly) perceptual direct realists. So talk of the “ineffable” nature of consciousness compared to the public material world of physical objects strikes a chord. But whether awake or dreaming, each of us, unwittingly, is speaking about the phenomenal contents of his or her own pseudo-public virtual world - with extracranial bodily behaviour as a by-product during waking life. How is this sophisticated linguistic behaviour possible? After all, language isn't innate; and "magical" theories of reference are inconsistent with physicalism. This is a deep question I explore in e.g. https://www.quora.com/What-is-considered-the-hardest-paradox-to-explain
As far as I can tell, non-psychotic binding is what consciousness has been evolutionary “for” over the past 540 million years. Without phenomenal binding, virtual world-making is impossible. The tough question is how binding occurs. In my view, talk of standing waves or the synchronous activation of distributed neuronal feature-processors is only a re-statement of the binding problem, not a solution. If neurons are really decohered classical objects, there is only a partial structural match between our unified phenomenal minds and neuroscience (ultimately physics), not a perfect structural match.
I conjecture there is a perfect structural match. Our minds and the phenomenal world-simulations they run are patterns in bedrock reality (cf. Quantum mind?) More formally, I explore the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist physicalism. What’s cool is that it's experimentally falsifiable by interferometry: What is a quantum mind?
If true, subjects of experience are not going to "emerge" in classical digital computers. And the Simulation Hypothesis is false.
Only on my websites, though Magnus Vinding kindly put together a Kindle of some of my essays.
I did give a talk at Tucson in 2016. David Chalmers thought my “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture was crazy, but I was surprised and impressed to learn from his Reddit AMA he’s tempered his scepticism
David Chalmers AMA
(btw, congratulations again on the Canonizer project]
Brent, sorry for vacillating.
I thought of putting my position in the Canoniser representationalist camp. Like Steve Lehar et al., I'm an inferential realist about perception. Or more accurately, we don’t “perceive” anything. Our minds run nearly real-time world-simulations that masquerade as the external world. However, I'm not convinced that any qualia are intrinsically representational:
And as taking psychedelics reveals, most state-spaces of qualia haven't been recruited by natural selection for even a quasi-representational role:
Anyhow, tentatively, I'm both a monistic physicalist and an idealist.
Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical:
Idealism plus Physicalism?
Qualia and the natural sciences
In “Schrödinger’s neurons” and elsewhere, I explore a quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument for non-materialist (“idealist") physicalism.
Unlike most of the other quantum mind guys, I don't believe in wave function collapse. I assume unitary-only QM, i.e. no new principle of physics. In my view, the big difference between our minds and the rest of the physical universe is non-psychotic phenomenal binding. Our minds and the world-simulations we run consist of "cat states" - individual neuronal superpositions sculpted by the most unimaginably powerful selection mechanism ever conceived, Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism”, applied to the CNS as well as mind-independent physical reality:
What is a quantum mind?
IMO, the binding problem in neuroscience and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics are two sides of the same coin, and may share a solution:
The measurement problem
You’ll see why I struggled to pigeonhole this framework in your existing taxonomy.
I don’t claim the hypothesis is true, merely that it will be (dis)confirmed by interferometry. Feel free to put me in any slot you judge best - possibly with or link or two, or else readers will think I'm spouting schizophrenic word-salad.
Wayne, many thanks for the careful exposition. My worry is that "panpsychism" can suggest property-dualism, i.e. experience at its most minimal is inseparably attached to all fundamental physical properties. By contrast, the thrust of the intrinsic nature argument is that experience discloses the essence of the physical. The "fire" in the equations is experiential. Perhaps transposing the mathematical machinery of physics onto an experientialist ontology is better called non-materialist physicalism (Grover Maxwell's term). The world consists of fields of sentience rather than insentience. Minds are a relatively late evolutionary novelty that didn't exist before the later Precambrian. I take this to be Galen Strawson's and (more recently) Phil Goff's view - although Strawson confuses me by defending perceptual direct realism, and Phil Goff veers off into an un-physicalist cosmopsychism.
Like you, Donald Hoffman left me rather confused. Is Hoffman arguing merely that we each run world-simulations that are distorted in all sorts of genetically adaptive ways: fitness trumps truth? If so, yes; inferential realism about perception has a long history, though your namesake would be turning in his grave. But is Hoffman also arguing that the mathematical machinery of modern physics shouldn't be interpreted realistically? One can believe that reality is, say, a multidimensional wavefunction in a complex Hilbert space and still be an uncompromising realist the mind-independent world - and I'm not sure what Hoffman thinks.
The falsity of (materialist or non-materialist) physicalism would leave the success of modern science a miracle.
“I would consider the initiative successful if we kill off one theory."
(Dr Dawid Potgieter)
How can we solve the greatest mystery in science?
I'm a super-pessimist about understanding consciousness. But IMO talk of the "Hard" and "easy" problems of consciousness reflects bad metaphysics and a false theory of perception...
Adam, the review of Phil Goff is by Galen Strawson, the academic philosopher most responsible for the revival of the intrinsic nature argument (cf. https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/consciousness-and-its-place-in-nature-does-physicalism-entail-panpsychism/) My own introduction to the intrinsic nature argument was via Michael Lockwood (cf. Postscript). Phil Goff previously argued against physicalistic panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism on the grounds it allegedly can’t solve the phenomenal binding/combination problem. (cf. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24706312?seq=1). In “Galileo’s Error”, Goff hints the answer has something to do with quantum entanglement, but he’s not a physicist (but then neither am I!) and IMO he doesn’t get to grip with what a solution entails: Quantum Mind-brain Unlike Strawson, Goff also flirts with cosmopsychism (cf. https://aeon.co/essays/cosmopsychism-explains-why-the-universe-is-fine-tuned-for-life)
We're all psychotic, in a sense:
Making it up as we go along
At a minimum, any science of consciousness should be empirically adequate. A scientific theory should explain (1) How and why consciousness exists at all, (2) how consciousness is phenomenally bound (the binding problem), (3) the diversity of experience given the relative qualitative homogeneity of basic constituents as normally described (the palette problem), and (4) how consciousness has the causal-functional power to e.g. allow us to discuss its existence (the problem of non-redundant causal efficacy). The theory should explain the successes of the old paradigm while resolving its anomalies and explaining a broader range of empirical phenomena. And critically, a scientific theory of consciousness should make novel, precise and experimentally falsifiable predictions that proponents and critics alike can agree will (dis)confirm it. As Vito says, Stanislas Dehaene’s "Consciousness and the Brain" has some marvellous material. But it's not clear (to me) if and how it satisfies these criteria. Hence my caution. By contrast, non-materialist physicalism satisfies all these criteria of a good scientific theory and more. It's also intuitively crazy. Hence my caution here too!
Jan, yes, it's tempting to regard our experience as "the patterns of the pixels". Compare a Mexican wave. It's emergent, but only weakly emergent, i.e. a Mexican wave supervenes on the behaviour of its individual participants, none of whom are individually wavy. But it's not like anything, subjectively, to be a Mexican wave – or at least, not unless spooky "strong" emergence is true! And that’s the rub. By analogy, we might suppose that the behaviour of "trained up" networks of neurons in the CNS straightforwardly supervenes on the behaviour of individual neurons/membrane-bound pixels of experience, i.e. it's emergent, but only weakly emergent. Sadly, this story doesn't work - or at least, not unless you're dreamlessly asleep. For right now, you are a unified subject of experience, not a micro-experiential zombie, mere patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust”. What’s more, this phenomenal unity isn’t a spandrel; it’s exceedingly adaptive:
The unity of consciousness)
The challenge is to show how such fitness-enhancing unity is physically possible.
You say that our experiences are "not encoded in the equations of physics". This is quite a bold claim – and perhaps it's true! But my working assumption is monistic physicalism. Just as the properties of biological life can be derived via quantum chemistry from fundamental physics, the same will turn out to be true of the properties of our minds.
Alas, the derivation isn't trivial.
"I defy anybody to watch that carnage and not intervene"
But the cruelties of Nature can’t be remedied by piecemeal intervention.
The biosphere needs compassionate stewardship:
What Erasmus Darwin called “the great slaughterhouse of nature”
should be replaced by a civilised biosphere.
[on moral realism]
Perhaps compare the claim that phenomenal colour is mind-dependent with the claim that there is no such thing as phenomenal colour. Disvaluable states are an objective feature of reality no less than phenomenal colour - even though neither disvalue nor colour would exist without sentient beings.
DP on Meta-Ethics
“Only an idiot would rely on the energy of a bean or a leaf to stay awake throughout the day.”
(Tahereh Mafi, Destroy Me)
May 21st is International Tea Day:
("Why drinking tea might just help in a crisis")
“The monsters were never
under my bed.
Because the monsters
were inside my head.”
“I fear no monsters,
for no monsters I see.
Because all this time
the monster has been me.”
“There are no heroes...in life, the monsters win.”
Here Be Monsters
The Philosophy of Mathematics
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that almost all mathematicians are Platonists, at least when they are actually doing mathematics…"
(Gerald B. Folland, Notices of the American Mathematical Society 2010)
Thanks Magnus. First, consider non-mathematical truth. Most people are semantic realists. And the greatest scientists and philosophers tend to have a strong commitment to discovering the truth. Contrast postmodernists, cultural relativists, sophists, politicians and other players of Wittgensteinian language games. Maybe only concrete spatio-temporal existence is real; but assuming the existence of abstract propositional content and a “magical” kind of reference is fruitful in gaining access to otherwise inconceivable features of the world. Likewise with practising pure mathematicians. Most of the good ones are implicitly platonists. If one believed that one were merely shuffling around meaningless marks in accordance with arbitrary rules rather than locking on to features of reality, then why bother? After all, there are plenty of meaningless marks that can be shuffled around in accordance with rules that are of no interest to mathematicians or indeed anyone else.
I suspect you may be right about philosophers of mathematics.
The 2020 Happiness Festival
My contibution: video (mp4)
An awesome podcast from Invincible Wellbeing. Jacob Shwartz-Lucas interviews Kent Berridge:
Pleasure in the Brain
("The most taboo ideas in neuroscience, psychiatry, drug policy, and neurotech are explored. We're enriching the conversation about hacking the hedonic treadmill, developing inexhaustible fortitude, adaptive pain control, unbound compassion, and sustainable bliss.")
Are ecstatic seizures a pathology?
Or a tantalising clue to the future of life?
Stuart, won't superhuman bliss feel superhumanly meaningful and fascinating by it's very nature? As Dan, says, the option of information-sensitive gradients of bliss (rather than uniform bliss) allows critical intelligence to be retained. However, it's not clear this option is open to classical utilitarians, except as a stopgap...
The final ideal state of sentience
The Happiness Revolution
The UK’s happiness tsar quotes Donald Trump (“Show me someone without an ego and I’ll show you a loser”). But I wish there more messianic egomaniacs driving a biohappiness revolution. We can’t meditate our way to universal bliss:
DP and Peter Singer
Thanks Robert. I could probably do one, but a transcript would involve listening to me (which I never do) as well as Peter Singer, who is always cool. If memory serves, we touch on topics like predation (cf. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-016-9637-4) but also the cataclysmic(?) implications of a classical utilitarian ethic for civilisation. If we ignore my Facebook jottings the first scholarly treatment I know of the potentially apocalyptic implications of a classical utilitarian as well as negative utilitarian ethic is Simon Knutsson’s:
The World Destruction Argument
Imagine if instead of striving for elegance and economy, mathematicians sought Rube-Goldberg-like proofs - the most complicated, ugly and inefficient ways to prove mathematical theorems. How absurd! Yet humans do something similar. We’re all slaves to the pleasure principle. Yet instead of being rational, efficient pleasure-maximisers who use our new-found knowledge of biotech and IT elegantly to maximise the abundance of empirical value in the world, we adopt a Rube-Goldberg-like approach.
Or so a classical utilitarian might claim...
The fate of the universe?
Information-sensitive gradients of bliss - even gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than human peak experiences - don’t strictly maximise subjective well-being as dictated by classical utilitarianism. By contrast, hedonium has no dips: it’s indiscriminate, all-consuming bliss. Although hedonium needn’t be erotic, “orgasmium” might be a more evocative term.
“I am not proud, but I am happy; and happiness blinds, I think, more than pride.”
(Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo)
The World Happiness Report
Alas the plight of nonhuman animals is ignored.
A popular Yale University online course is called “The Science of Well-Being”.
("A college course world wants to study right now")
2. Connect with others
3. Practise gratitude
Alas, mindfulness makes melancholia worse, connecting with others is hazardous for hedgehogs, and counting one's blessings is genetically maladaptive (cf. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-020-00236-6).
Well-being must be genetically designed.
Superhuman bliss will entail superhuman meaning. Re-engineering our reward circuitry will add more to the Meaning of Life than 2500 years of philosophy - and all the world's self-improvement manuals combined.
Stuart, yes, as you say, "information-sensitive gradients of bliss" is neutral about what kinds of information we should be responsive to. Nociception and basic bodily functions are straightforward enough, but what about more cerebral stimuli? Transhumans and posthumans will have vastly different preoccupations from us. However, one of the advantages of hedonic recalibration is precisely how engineering a higher hedonic range and higher hedonic set-point can enrich everyone’s default quality of life without adjudicating between their conflicting preferences and irreconcilable values. In principle, mass hedonic uplift can even be profoundly conservative. To give a toy example, trying to reconcile the conflicting preferences of 100 fanatical football-team supporters for their 100 different football teams to win the cup is logically impossible. "Coherent extrapolated volition" won't help either. By itself, ratcheting up their hedonic set-points won’t change their allegiances or (un)satisfied preferences. But hedonic uplift will massively enrich their quality of life. Exactly the same point holds when the stakes are much higher than football. In other words, you don’t need to be any kind of (negative, classical or preference utilitarian) to advocate a biohappiness revolution.
[a critique of The Hedonistic Imperative]
A Critique of The Hedonistic Imperative & YouTube
I hope to do a proper response later. There has been surprisingly little serious scholarly treatment of what a civilisation based entirely o gradients of well-being would entail - whether pitfalls or practicalities. I did a quick Google search under “gradients of bliss” which confirmed my suspicions: not many scholarly treatises and a lot of electronic music by the (admirable!) Barker. (cf. Sam Barker and DP)
I was only five or six years old, but I remember from my grandad’s car the aroma of
Why some people love the smell of gasoline
Strangely, my little ancestral namesake “just knew” there was something dangerous and forbidden about petrol - I don’t know why.
My new role model:
Adult humans lose around 5% of our dopamine-producing neurons each decade. We’d all develop Parkinsonian signs and symptoms if we lived long enough. Can youthful function be restored?
Stem cell transplant
("A secret experiment revealed: In a medical first, doctors treat Parkinson’s with a novel brain cell transplant")
But did Nature get there first?
Building a quantum computer
Robin redbreast? Alas not:
What's it like to be a quantum robin?
Time to restore the sacred in our lives?
How to party
Indistinguishable from magic? Not yet...
Technologies of the early 21st century
Coming Soon: DP in dialogue with Brock Bastian, author of The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living (2018):
Happiness / Meaning
The biohappiness revolution will make us fearless too.
Daryl yes, IMO we need systematic research into the cognitive biases of today's hyperthymic anomalies. They haven't been nearly as well studied as depressives.
My Opening and Rejoinder to Brock. And a Quora answer: Critique of HI.
Thanks Benjamin. In one sense, I agree with your criticism. I sometimes sound like a crude genetic determinist - despite disavowing the label. Starting with parenting and education, and going on to the nature of our society, a fully developed blueprint for the abolitionist project will include detailed socio-psychological prescriptions for reform. These prescriptions are only are "biological" insofar as all our experience supervenes on neurobiology (and ultimately physics). So should I do it? Or have other researchers already written voluminously and (I suspect) more effectively than I could do?
Value of Suffering Project
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11
David Pearce (2020)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-20
Social Network Postings (2020)