JANUARY 2021 -
[on the Year 2020]
“For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.”
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)
The prospect of life based on gradients of superhuman bliss is proving more elusive than one might wish.
Farewell Year 2020...
[on the raving twenties]
The world feels crazier by the day. But we're missing something. No individual craziness competes with the seemingly miraculous fact that anything exists at all. Existence never ceases to shock me.
January 2nd. Happy birthday Kane Tanaka (1903-):
The world's oldest person
("World's oldest living person celebrates 118th birthday. Tanaka, born in 1903, celebrates her birthday at care facility in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan, where she lives")
If we discount the Calment case, and (naively) assume enduring metaphysical egos, only Sarah Knauss (1880-1999) has lived longer. But the world is still ravaged by a pandemic worse than COVID.
[on transhumanism in Spanish]
Diego Andrade Yáñez has kindly translated
El imperativo de abolir el sufrimiento una entrevista con David Pearce
my interview (English version) with Sentience Research. My new year's resolution is to master Spanish. Apparently there is no exact translation of "information-sensitive" [gradients of bliss].
[Iván writes] "Lo que dice Pearce básicamente es que existe una métrica de valor/disvalor que es una propiedad intrínseca del universo en el que vivimos. El bienestar es valioso y el sufrimiento es disvalioso. Esas son propiedades intrínsecas del universo, no epistémicamente subjetivas y no opinables. No sólo no existen criaturas que valoren negativamente su propio bienestar: esas criaturas no son concebibles, tal como pasa con los círculos cuadrados. Todo tu sufrimiento es malo para vos, y todo tu bienestar es bueno: esas son verdades autoevidentes (para vos). Ahora bien, eso sólo aplica cuando hablamos de sufrimiento y bienestar propios. No es inmediato para mi que tu sufrimiento es malo. Tu sufrimiento no tiene el poder motivador inmediato para mi que tiene el mío. Al enterarme de tu sufrimiento, bien puedo no sólo no hacer nada, pero también no sentir ninguna propensión particular a hacer algo. La cuestión es que, dice Pearce, esa asimetría es sólo asimetría de información. Si yo pudiera correr una simulación suficientemente fiel de tu mente en mi cabeza, entonces, forzosamente, compartiría tu valoración negativa por tu sufrimiento. Mi falta de valoración o interés en tu sufrimiento es una limitación epistémica de mi parte. Me falta información. Entonces, dice Pearce, no deberíamos andar glorificando nuestras limitaciones epistémicas como si fueran las mejores guías de conducta. Todo lo contrario: deberíamos intentar actuar como si no las tuviéramos."
"Entonces el sufrimiento tiene valor intrínseco negativo, y el bienestar tiene valor intrínseco positivo. Esos hechos son obvios para nosotros cuando hablamos de sufrimiento y bienestar propios, pero cuando se trata de sufrimiento y bienestar ajenos, nos falta información. Ya no nos es tan evidente que esos sufrimientos son malos ni que esos bienestares son buenos. Eso es porque nos falta información (no tenemos acceso a los "fist-person facts" a los que tienen acceso los demás), y no deberíamos usar nuestra falta de información como guía de conducta, sino más bien intentar resolverla."
What is DP's position on meta-ethics?
Diego has also translated High-Tech Jainism (2014). See: Jainismo de alta tecnologia (2021). Awesome. Let's hope compassionate stewardship of the living world resonates with a Spanish-speaking audience.
“Novelists don't age as quickly as philosophers, who often face professional senility in their late twenties."
(Author: Martin Amis)
I'm currently guest speaker on The Philosophy Forum - and not displaying too many signs of advancing Davezeimers, I hope...
DP on The Philosophy Forum
I've cut-and-pasted to Hedweb my responses:
Responses to Objections and Questions
[on the hedonic treadmill]
But not if your wildest dream is to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill...
What If You Achieved Your Wildest Dreams But Felt Miserable?
("A conversation with an Olympic athlete, filmmaker, actor, and writer.")
[on past suffering]
Adam, Alexey Turchin has written a very interesting paper "Back to the Future: Curing Past Suffering and S-Risks via Indexical Uncertainty, Acausal Trade and Domination in The Multiverse – or Time Travel". As you might guess, I'm pessimistic - I intend to send Alexey a critique. But such intuitively crazy ideas just illustrate the risk of premature defeatism and of getting indiscriminately "blissed out" out after we have eradicated suffering on Earth. Ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points will be wiser.
Can superintelligences have a false theory of personal identity? If enduring metaphysical egos are just a human fiction (cf. Ultra-Parfittianism), then the prospect that advanced superintelligences could share such a human misconception is vanishingly low. Moreover, what does one mean by "superintelligence"? A full-spectrum superintelligence can presumably access all first-person perspectives and act accordingly. Just as an intelligent mirror-touch synaesthete couldn’t wantonly harm you – harming you would be like harming himself – the all-round “mind-reading” powers of superintelligence will presumably vastly surpass human mirror-touch synaesthetes. So full-spectrum superintelligences won’t be Super-Aspergers. That said, I don't discount s-risks: DP on suffering risks. But (IMO) s-risks derive from biological humans, not insentient digital computers. I'm guessing that you'd argue instead that digital computers could one day become sentient. After all, Turing machines are substrate-neutral, and it is commonly believed that the conscious human mind-brain could be emulated via a Turing machine. But in my view, classical computers cannot solve the phenomenal binding/combination problem (cf. binding-problem.com). Phenomenal binding is immensely adaptive for animal minds. It's the key to our evolutionary success. Binding is too difficult for classical Turing machines – even if their 1s and 0s were fancifully replaced by discrete micro-pixels of experience. Complexity of code or speed of execution make no difference to their zombie status. At most, the upshot is a micro-experiential zombie. Now OK, unless you’re seriously troubled by the binding problem, I don’t remotely expect you to be persuaded by my tentative solution (cf. Quantum Mind). But the answer one gives to the binding problem has profound implications for the future of intelligent life in the universe. Moreover, Everett naturalised modality. There are no effectively decohered “branches” of the multiverse where classical digital computers are phenomenally-bound subjects of experience, let alone malevolent machine superintelligences. A classical digital computer has no understanding of the pleasure-pain axis or phenomenal consciousness of any kind. Everett’s one-and-only multiverse is very different from Tegmark’s hypothetical “Level IV" multiverse. If “Level IV" were real, then yes, so too (presumably) would be atypical evil super-AIs that torture folk. But Tegmark is assuming mathematical platonism rather than nominalism: DP on mathematics.
I’d love to think you are right that intelligent moral agents can somehow eradicate past suffering. But my working assumption is something like Jan-Markus Schwindt’s "Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation": https://arxiv.org/pdf/1210.8447.pdf
Let’s I hope I’m wrong.
(cf. The logic of experimental tests, particularly of Everettian quantum theory
Victor, fascinating. Thanks. I didn’t know this (Schrödinger drawing a quantum brain/phenomenal binding link in his book What is Life?) Schrödinger also anticipates Everett (a jocular allusion in his 1952 Dublin lecture) AND the causally time-symmetric two-state vector formalism too – back in 1931 - but he seems to have lacked the courage of his convictions. Of course, the opposite problem is taking one's ideas too seriously and ending up as just another crank. Actually, a fair number of researchers have briefly wondered whether two classically impossible kinds of holism could be linked - QM and the unity of our minds. The expert consensus is no. The timescales are wrong by many orders of magnitude - scores of milliseconds versus less than femtoseconds. Decoherence is insanely powerful. But if one takes the intrinsic nature argument seriously, then the "dynamical timescales" objection of Tegmark et al. against quantum mind isn't decisive.
Only experiment, i.e. interferometry, can settle the issue.
Dirk, it's not hard to program a digital computer rigged with a speech synthesiser to emit sounds we interpret as claiming it's a phenomenally bound subject of experience racked by existential angst.
It's a zombie.
If p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies were only an epistemological worry - just a version of the ancient sceptical Problem of Other Minds - then they wouldn’t be especially interesting. I don't think p-zombies or micro-experiential zombies are really feasible; they will turn out to be unphysical. But if physicists and chemists really understood the properties of matter and energy, then all of us would be p-zombies. And if not p-zombies, then micro-experiential zombies. The spectre of zombies and micro-experiential zombies highlights the failure of science to explain subjective experience - the only empirical evidence one can ever access. It’s not hyperbole to say that scientific materialism is inconsistent with the entirety(!) of the empirical evidence.
How faithfully could an insentient connectionist system or a programmable digital computer emulate human behaviour - the by-product of a phenomenally-bound subject of experience? I don't know. I don’t think anyone knows. But connectionist systems and programmable digital computer are not spontaneously going to start taking about their non-existent consciousness minds - though they could be programmed or “trained up” to persuade credulous humans otherwise.
[on the dangers of transhumanism]
Dangerous to what or to whom?
The Transhumanist Project
("Transhumanism Explained and Examined (A Dangerous Philosophy?)")
I worry more about ineffectual transhumanism.
[on ending predation]
Max, many thanks.
1. The case for phasing out (human and nonhuman) predation doesn't depend on utilitarian ethics. The belief that all sentient beings should flourish accords with many ethical traditions. Indeed, genetically tweaking predators (and civilising the biosphere as described) is non-utilitarian, or rather only indirectly utilitarian; reprogramming solutions are designed to accommodate the bioconservative prejudices of people who want to preserve the cat family and other "charismatic megafauna".
2. Meta-ethics deserves a treatise. You'll forgive me for just hotlinking:
DP on meta-ethics
Even if you regard ethics as no different from supporting your football team, the “anti-suffering team" now has powerful tools (CRISPR, gene drives, cultured meat, cross-species fertility regulation, AI, etc) that we hitherto lacked.
3. I presume you give some weight to minimising, mitigating and preventing suffering.
4. Consciousness too deserves a treatise. But consider the reason that you'd insist on anaesthesia as well as a muscle-paralysing agent before surgery. The “raw feels” of agony are indescribably, shockingly bad. Agony, panic and despair and evolutionarily ancient and (a conditionally activated predisposition to) their neurological expression is strongly conserved. Such horrors will shortly be optional.
More generally, your worries about the apocalyptic implications of classical utilitarian ethics take us well beyond Alex's post. So does my response, so again I'll hotlink:
What is the secret of eternal happiness?
The advantage of focusing on ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points is that existing values and preference architecture can largely be preserved.
Markus, no one enjoys unbearable agony and despair. The fact that a minority of folk take pleasure in the suffering of others reflects human epistemological limitations, not a deep metaphysical truth. I'm unclear why you believe that I'm "completely degenerated by 'civilisation'".
Otto, the technical challenges of designing an ecosystem based on consensual cannibalism defeat the imagination.
[on primordial life]
Dark Forest Theory ("A terrifying explanation of why we haven’t heard from aliens yet. The Fermi paradox asks us where all the aliens are if the cosmos should be filled with them. The Dark Forest theory says we should pray we never find them") IMO, we’re probably alone. This doesn’t mean we’re special. Rather, the “thermodynamic miracle” (Eric Drexler) of our origin simply means that life-supporting Hubble volumes where primordial life arises more than once are vanishingly rare. If so, we’re typical.
[on intelligence and autism]
Why autism and invention are intimately related
("The prehistoric cognitive revolution that saw an explosion of inventions was driven by a new, pattern-seeking network in the brain – and that’s highly correlated with autism today, says researcher Simon Baron-Cohen")
A "hypermasculine" cognitive style takes different guises...
What does having high testosterone feel like?
[on free will]
Is free will an illusion? (Big Think)
("Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out")
The idea of free will is hard to reconcile with modern science (cf. Determinism and physics). But could a society ever arise in which we don’t assume free will during the 99.999% of the time when we're not philosophising about its non-existence? Human social life and our criminal justice system are a form of organized psychosis:
[on anti-natalism and transhumanism]
Ole Martin Moen argues that ultra-pessimists should reject anti-natalism in favour of transhumanism:
Pessimism Counts in Favor of Biomedical Enhancement
("A Lesson from the Anti-Natalist Philosophy of P. W. Zapffe")
“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”
(Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men)
A fate worse than birth?
Can we engineer a world where everyone feels lucky to be alive?
Are you a lucky person?
[on brain-computer interfaces and mood]
But good genetic design will be morally preferable to post-production editing.
Valve co-founder says brain-computer interfaces will let you ‘edit’ your feelings
("Gabe Newell expects the devices to personalise gameplay and modify your mood")
[on uncontrollable Super-Intelligence]
We Wouldn’t Be Able to Control Super-Intelligent Machines
I've outlined my scepticism about a zombie putsch e.g. here: The Intelligence Explosion. Phenomenal binding gives biological minds computational power that wildly surpasses any classical Turing machine. So does the biggest threat to sentient beings lie in digital zombies or human paperclippers oblivious of the sentience of their victims, i.e. nonhuman animals?
There is a terrible irony. MIRI have done more than anyone to sound the alarm about the alleged threat of nonbiological machines taking over and exterminating humanity (“The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else” - Eliezer Yudkowsky). Yet MIRI are also oblivious of the status of the billions of nonhuman animals whom humans asphyxiate (fish) or factory-farm and slaughter. MIRI even promote such ignorance: A debate on animal consciousness.
Less urgently, I view the AI revolution as both a blessing and an insidious threat to the growth of knowledge. Just as IQ tests and SAT scores reflect an impoverished conception of intelligence, likewise computer science encourage an impoverished conception of understanding. Our most profound sources of human ignorance are alien state-spaces of consciousness. Their investigation is unintelligible to digital zombies.
Virtue-signalling? Tim, to what extent do people who complain against child abuse do so out of (1) ethical principle rather than because 2) they personally find child abuse upsetting or out of motives (3) virtue signalling? And more to the point, does the sheer complexity and messiness of human motivations for doing the right thing really matter? Exactly the same holds where the victims of abuse are nonhuman animals of comparable sentience to young children. What’s more, if (unlike me) you believe the Intelligence Explosion and paperclipper scenarios are serious threats to what passes as human civilisation, then shouldn't you be especially on guard against doing precisely what you warn against, namely treating sentient beings as mere biomass to be turned into something else? Devising ways to protect the interests of cognitively humble beings (i.e. humans) in the face of vastly superior intelligence is supposed to be what MIRI and other AI-risk focused organizations are all about. Short-term versus long-term ethics is a false dichotomy.
Tim, IMO smart angels would be especially likely to retire Homo sapiens. And as far as I can tell, AI-augmented transhumans will be able to do everything standalone digital zombies could do and more. But this topic takes us away from whether we should be trying to create sentience-friendly biological intelligence.
[on intelligence and depression]
"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
But genome editing and neurochips can make blissful superintelligence the norm.
Are depression and intelligence related?
Not a philosophical zombie in sight...
Caption: With David Pearce, Keith Turausky, Galen Strawson
(picture taken from David Chalmers' website - Towards the Science of Consciousness 2010).
Photos from the "End of Consciousness" party
The Hippies Were Right
(It's All about Vibrations, Man! A new theory of consciousness")
Talk of the "neural correlates of consciousness" leads to David Chalmers' distinction between the "hard" and “easy” problems of consciousness. The existence of consciousness itself becomes miraculous, impossible to reconcile with the properties of matter and energy as described by chemistry and physics. Phenomenal binding becomes physically impossible. And how subjective experience exerts the causal power to inspire discussions of its existence becomes an unfathomable mystery. What a mess!
IMO, the distinction is bogus. Talk of the "neural correlates of consciousness" assumes perceptual direct realism. In reality, the lumps of exposed nervous tissue that you experience in a neurosurgeon’s operating theatre are as much part of your autobiographical consciousness as a headache. Likewise the membrane-bound neurons you experience that are seemingly accessible via light microscopy:
What is the Cartesian theatre?
This claim sounds like radical scepticism - or solipsism. But not so. As far as I can tell, physicalism (as distinction from materialism) is true.
A demolition of neocortical chauvinism. But why we aren't zombies or micro-experiential zombies is left unexplained: “The Hidden Spring
("A Journey To The Source Of Consciousness” By Mark Solms)
Physicalistic idealism or idealistic physicalism:
Consciousness and Ethically Optimal Futures
Facundo, you're in extremely distinguished company, but IMO you don't "get" the phenomenal binding or combination problem. Thus I'm not misinterpreting my experience when I say I don't have "integrative agnosia". Compare how Kiddoch and Humphreys (2003) cite a patient who when presented with e.g. a paintbrush sees the handle and the bristles as two separate objects, i.e. he can't integrate the different parts and properties of an object into a whole. Nor do I have simultanagnosia (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simultanagnosia); I am currently undergoing the experience of seeing several pigeons on my balcony, not just one. Nor do I have akinetopsia ("motion blindness") (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akinetopsia) - the pigeons are hopping around. If neuroscientists correctly understand the awake central nervous system as a pack of decohered classical neurons, then it's a mystery why all of us don't have integrative agnosia, simultanagnosia, akinetopsia (etc) and indeed why we all aren't just micro-experiential zombies made up of c. 86 billion membrane-bound neuronal pixels of experience:
Micro-experiential zombies and the binding problem
Facundo, Kuhn's ideas on "incommensurable paradigms" and mutually unintelligible conceptual schemes could have been invented to describe the gulf between us. However...
Evolutionary biology became a scientific discipline only when Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection was combined with Mendel's ideas on heredity (the Modern Synthesis) and Watson and Crick cracked the code of life. Molecular biology can be derived from fundamental physics via quantum chemistry. The ontological unity of science is preserved. On its own, the claim that a trait is adaptive and it's explained by evolution is scientifically inadequate. After all, telepathy and precognition would be highly adaptive too. But psi powers are irreducible to physics and have no place in science.
The mystery for monistic physicalists is consciousness - its existence, binding, diversity and causal efficacy (cf. https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#mechanism). I am conscious right now; and I fear I'm not alone. I'm interested in deriving the properties of conscious mind ultimately from fundamental physics, just as one can derive the properties of self-replicating DNA from physics. One may not want to go into detail, but all scientific explanation must be ultimately "cashed out" in terms of the underlying physics.
Now if you or Daniel Dennett don't undergo diverse kinds of phenomenally-bound experience with the causal power to inspire discussions of its own existence, then you won't find any mystery to explain. Sadly, I do! , you say, "If a behaviour can be produced without binding, then that behaviour is not good evidence of binding."
Yes, exactly! The behaviour of Tesla cars can be explained entirely via their structure and programming. Tesla cars lack a unified self or phenomenally-bound perceptual objects. Tesla cars don't run a phenomenal world-simulation - as distinct from its computational workaround - on pain of spooky "strong" emergence.
In the case of humans, however, our point of departure is different. Right now you are experiencing a perceptual object such as Facundo's animated rhinoceros ("local" binding) within your phenomenal world-simulation ("global" binding, aka the unity of perception and the unity of the self). Binding is a massively fitness-enhancing adaptation – as illustrated by syndromes where binding partially breaks down (integrative agnosia, simultanagnosia, akinetopsia, florid schizophrenia, etc). What's more, barring radical scepticism, you are entitled to assume that you’re a fairly typical human. So other human and nonhuman animals have phenomenally bound-experiences too.
Therefore two questions need asking:
1) How is such phenomenally-bound experience physically possible? After all, on standard scientific assumptions, (a) the world's fundamental quantum fields are non-experiential; and (b) neurons are decohered classical objects.
2) How much of the behaviour of sentient beings can functionally be replicated in, say, a Tesla car, an insentient inorganic robot, or any other classical Turing machine that lacks phenomenal binding? I think you know my tentative answer to (1). I explore the quantum-theoretic version of the recently fashionable intrinsic nature argument. If the non-classical interference signature of an experiment like
doesn't yield the perfect structural match I anticipate, just "noise", then a “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture will be refuted. If so, the explanation lies elsewhere. We shall see. I don’t know.
My answer to (2) is again: I don't know. Many AI researchers would say "everything" (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church%E2%80%93Turing_thesis) I'm more cautious.
If phenomenal binding is indeed non-classical and non-algorithmic, i.e. a fundamental property of bedrock quantum reality, then an AI triumphalist might say, “So what?” Deep Blue doesn't need phenomenally-bound consciousness to outperform humans at chess. Programmable digital zombies will be able to do everything humans can do and more.
However, silicon (etc) robots equipped with GPT-10 are never going to e.g. take euphoriants, explore altered state-spaces of consciousness on psychedelics, or tell us about their non-existent inner lives. For instance, I may report I have a nasty headache and take an analgesic. If you ask GPT-10 whether it has a headache, then GPT-10 will presumably respond “No". Let’s assume GPT-10 has always been reliable to date. And GPT-10’s response to your query is correct; GTP-10 can't experience headaches nor any other kind of phenomenally-bound consciousness.
But what if GPT-10 says, "Yes"?
Well, my elderly namesake would then demand to inspect GPT-10’s CPU...
Iván, interpreting the conceptual scheme of Dennettians poses many challenges. If I understand your approach correctly (probably not!), it's to acknowledge that humans and other animals experience phenomenally-bound perceptual objects in their world-simulations (naively, "perception"), but to argue that well-programmed silicon (etc) robots do the same - as may be inferred from their behaviour: "Because we have in front of us, in the "eye of our mind" a unified interface in which all of the unified perceptual objects we are perceiving are organised? Software too:
The behaviour of Samsung's Handy robot can be explained without invoking any phenomenally-bound perceptual objects in a phenomenally-unified world-simulation. And as you remarked earlier, "If a behaviour can be produced without binding, then that behaviour is not good evidence of binding."
By contrast, one's own waking experience of phenomenally-bound perceptual objects in a vast phenomenal world-simulation is a brute fact. I have such an experience now; I assume you to do. Science needs to explain both the existence of consciousness and how such phenomenal unity of perception is possible. A pack of classical neurons shouldn't be able to run a unified phenomenal world-simulation any more than Handy. Phenomenally-bound experience in the guise of perceptual objects is insanely computationally powerful in helping animals like us navigate; but that's not the primary reason for acknowledging its existence:
"Because you feel pain?
This one is tricky. But the idea of it being just how an algorithm feels from inside should not be discarded so easily, at least:
A complication here is that pain can be functionless, so-called neuropathic pain. But yes, natural selection has harnessed states like pain to play a characteristic information-signaling role in biological animals.
So here we have two versions of the intrinsic nature argument:
1. Computationalists propose that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of an algorithm.
2. Constitutive panpsychists / non-materialist physicalists propose that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
Who is right?
Well, an algorithm must be physically implemented. Treated as a disembodied abstraction, an algorithm has no phenomenology, no “raw feels” like phenomenal pain. A computationalist would stress that the implementation is substrate-neutral, i.e. the physical composition of a classical Turing machine is irrelevant to the execution of the program it runs. But notional abstract objects like algorithms need embodiment. And here we come back to where we started. If physicalism is true, i.e. “strong" emergence is impossible, then a classical Turing machine can't support phenomenal binding - even if we notionally replace its 1s and 0s with discrete micro-pixels of experience. By contrast, the quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic nature argument I explore is empirically adequate, explanatorily powerful and - critically - experimentally falsifiable.
I don't know if it's true - but that's the whole point of trusting the experimental method to give us answers.
Hah. GPT-3 and Argentinian philosophers have much in common! Facundo, there is a difference between claiming that (1) p-zombies are physically possible, and (2) claiming that if standard materialist premises are correct, then no one understands why we aren't p-zombies. I don't believe p-zombies are physically possible because if non-materialist physicalism is correct, so-called p-zombies are unphysical. Only the physical is real. Claims both (1) and (2) differ from your Dennettian claim that (3) we are all p-zombies. Well, I'm not a p-zombie. And if you say that I shouldn't trust my experience, well, it's precisely the existence of experience to distrust that wouldn't arise if we were all p-zombies.
OK, now phenomenal binding. If we were all p-zombies, then there would be no experience to bind. So the question of why we aren't micro-experiential zombies during waking life wouldn't arise. But I don't have integrative agnosia (etc). Instead, I experience local and global binding within my phenomenal world-simulation. Like many other philosophers and neuroscientists, I am puzzled by the partial structural mismatch between by my phenomenally-bound experience and the ostensible micro-architecture of the CNS. So I explore the conjecture that a perfect structural match exists in the fundamental high-dimensional space required by the dynamics of the wavefunction rather than in four-dimensional space-time. However, I know I lost you several inferential moves ago. Therefore I won’t recapitulate the conjecture and its future experimental (dis)confirmation here! :-)
"Becoming a part of a movement doesn't help anybody think clearly.” (Sam Harris)
But I try. Transhumanism 2021:
A Q-and-A with the Futurist Foundation
Q-and-A & MP4.
Donald, unlike p-zombies, which are (probably!) science-fiction, micro-experiential zombies may well be real. IMO, you are a micro-experiential zombie while dreamlessly asleep. If you are not a micro-experiential zombie when dreamlessly asleep, then we face the Hard Problem of consciousness. However, if awake minds are just a pack of classical neurons, as naive neuroscanning suggests, then how is phenomenal binding possible? Binding is insanely adaptive; just consider neurological syndromes when it partially breaks down. Binding is also classically impossible. Turing machines can’t do it. Science currently has no answer.
The binding problem & Binding-problem.com.
Donald, in the Q-and-A, I remarked that notionally replacing the 1s and 0s of a classical Turing machine with discrete pixels of experience, and then running the program, still wouldn't create a phenomenally-bound subject of experience, irrespective of the complexity of the code or speed of its execution. Or rather, if a unified subject of experience were to arise, then this would amount to spooky "strong" emergence: monistic physicalism would be false. The point of my fanciful thought-experiment was to highlight how even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, we need to explain how unified subjects of experience - running unified phenomenal world-simulations populated by multiple feature-bound perceptual objects - arise in biological nervous systems. Phenomenal binding has been critical to our evolutionary success over the past 540 million years. To solve the Hard Problem and the Binding Problem and the Problem of Causal Efficacy, we need to derive the properties of our phenomenal minds (ultimately) from physics.
Anyhow, to use your example, yes, to primitive tribes, a “foo”/car might seem a single object. But the tribespeople could be shown how to dissemble and assemble a functioning car from its components. Reductionism works with cars – demonstrably so. By contrast, neuroscience can identify distributed feature-processors in the CNS – neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons and so forth. But there is (apparently) a structural mismatch, i.e. you aren’t merely an aggregate of 86 billion membrane-bound pixels of Jamesian mind-dust. (cf. The unity of consciousness). David Chalmers regards this structural mismatch as an argument for dualism. I suspect that it's an artefact of our temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. Either way, if phenomenal binding is non-classical, then the interference signature will tell us. It's an empirical question to be settled by the normal methods of science:
Testing theories of consciousness
And the relevance of all this for transhumanism?
Well, there are strong theoretical reasons for scepticism about digital sentience:
The Biointelligence Explosion
Compare an inspirational message of "The Singularity is Near" with the prediction that in 2045 we won't have ended aging; pain and depression will still be endemic; and digital computers will be ignorant zombies. I still cautiously prophesy a glorious transhumanist future of superhappiness, superlongevity and superhappiness - but not on a timescale an audience will want to hear.
Let’s hope I’m too gloomy.
Transhumanist podcast: SeVR & MP4.
French transhumanism and the abolitionist project:
Youtube & MP3
(DP in conversation with French transhumanist Christophe Thiry)
My blood pressure rose reading section 5.4; but fortunately from a relatively low vegan baseline.
Transhumanism: an Ontology of the World's Most Dangerous Idea
by Benjamin D. Ross
“Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.”
Pessimism Counts in Favor of Biomedical Enhancement
("A Lesson from the Anti-Natalist Philosophy of P. W. Zapffe")
It's natural to assume that advocates of biological-genetic remediation / enhancement have a rosier view of life than negative utilitarians, "hard" anti-natalists and advocates of human extinction. Often they do - but not always. Some of us have a bleaker view of reality than Wessel Zapffe.
Anyhow, kudos to author Ole Martin.
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29876495-the-philosophy-of-the-m-z>The Philosophy of the Mòzĭ
("The First Consequentialists") Dan, thanks, yes, Mòzĭ was a proto-utilitarian. If classical utilitarianism really commits us to engineering an all-consuming utilitronium shockwave, maybe contemporary CUs merit only the "proto" label too.
[on happiness and the paradox of hedonism]
Perpetual activation of your ultimate "hedonic hotspot" in the ventral pallidum might be more enlightening.
The Yale Happiness Course
("Over 3 Million People Took This Course on Happiness. Here’s What Some Learned.
It may seem simple, but it bears repeating: sleep, gratitude and helping other people.")
Hell has an escape-hatch. An infernal machine for creating suffering can be genetically hacked and reprogrammed into an engine of superhuman bliss. Tomorrow’s genome-editing should be underpinned by an ideology of liberation biology - and a socio-political revolution to match.
Alas, most academic philosophers still rationalise the status quo...
The flawed pursuit of happiness?
Dave what is sometimes true for individuals, namely the paradox of hedonism, will not straightforwardly be true of a civilisation that re-engineers its reward circuitry. However, in one sense at least, the paradox of hedonism could continue to play out even in a civilisation with a hedonic range of, say, schematically, +70 to +100, just as the paradox arises in our dismal Darwinian hedonic range of -10 to 0 to +10. The paradox of hedonism
I’d like to combine a selective kappa opioid receptor antagonist (cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5288841/) with a selective blocker of the ACKR3 receptor (cf. https://www.genengnews.com/news/blocking-newly-identified-opioid-receptor-points-to-new-therapeutics-for-pain-depression-and-cancer/) together with positive allosteric modulators (cf.https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-04-body-natural-pain-killers.html) for sustainable hedonic uplift.
[on suffering and negative utilitarianism]
Dan Faggella would not "walk away from Omelas".
Negative Utilitarianism Won’t Take Us Where We Need to Go
A selection of Schopenhauer’s later writings:
'On the Suffering of the World'
Maximilian, imagine the universe had a secret button you could press to create:
(1) a type-identical copy. Pressing the button would create more joy and more suffering than anyone in history. Would you press it?
2) a blissful paradise, New Omelas, marred by the torment of a single child - a mere pinprick in comparison. Would you press it?
People's response to the thought-experiment and its variants differs. But strikingly, refuseniks who say they wouldn’t press either button aren’t regarded by the button-pressers as deranged or depraved. Button-pressers recognise there are legitimate concerns. Such thought-experiments capture how so much of what passes as morality is really an expression of status quo bias, Alexander Pope’s “Whatever is, is right.” – the kind of attitude satirised by Voltaire in Candide.
As a negative utilitarian, I favour enshrining the sanctity of human and nonhuman life in law and working towards a world of superhuman bliss where all your dreams come true. And if a critic protests, "But that’s not negative utilitarianism!", well, I'd demur. The critic hadn't grasped what real-world, politically and socially credible NU entails. We want to abolish disappointments, blighted hopes, anything that distresses you in the slightest. The best way to do this is a biohappiness revolution.
Maximilian, NUs want to minimise, and ideally prevent, all experience below hedonic zero. This is our overriding ethical goal. To achieve this ambition, building the broadest possible political coalition of folk from different secular and religious traditions is essential. So other parameters should be accommodated - where feasible. Critically, ratcheting up hedonic range and hedonic set-points doesn't by itself challenge (most) other ethical traditions. For who doesn't want to wake up in an extremely good mood - and with his or her core values and preferences intact?
Vignesh, back last century, I discussed cosmic rescue-missions Indeed, in the final section of High-tech Jainism give as an example of an ethically catastrophic mistake a civilisation that has embraced HI, but wrongly concluded they were alone in their Hubble volume. I'm still, provisionally, a Rare Earther. Contrast e.g. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astronomer-avi-loeb-says-aliens-have-visited-and-hes-not-kidding1/. Yet what if Rare Earthism is wrong and (1) there are pain-ridden Darwinian ecosystems elsewhere in our galaxy; and (2) we judge Earth-originating life is more likely to prevent suffering rather than propagate it? Is there a case for maintaining a small cognitive elite who actually understand what experience below hedonic zero involves in more than a formal sense – guardians of the galaxy, so to speak, who know that NU isn't some crazy affective psychosis from a bygone era?
I can see the case for conservation. But beings who can't conceive of suffering can recognise the difference between, say, a normal healthy hedonic +80 or +90 and a rare hedonic +70 - their functional equivalent of the dark night of the soul. Animated by gradients of well-being, they can be hypermotivated to keep life as near to+100 as possible without compromising information-sensitivity. I know it's hard to believe today, but a few millennia from now - and I hope few centuries from now - I reckon hedonically sub-zero experience will not just be physically impossible, but irrelevant. Compare how humans rarely study the Dark Ages today. Posthuman ignorance of Darwinian life may be more profound.
I'm also aware this prophecy could be dangerously naïve.
[on nonhuman animals]
Humane Hancock is awesome...
Youtube and MP4
We discuss transhumanism, the abolitionist project and the prospect of reprogramming the biophere to engineer the well-being of all sentience.
"Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are its tormented souls."
Automated real-time translation is needed between human and nonhuman animals...
The Challenges of Animal Translation
[on effective altruism]
Effective altruism: should elite hyperthymics be encouraged to become sperm donors? Alas raising global hedonic set-point averages via “designer babies” is still a futuristic fantasy.
Sperm donors on Facebook
("The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand. Many people want a pandemic baby, but some sperm banks are running low. So women are joining unregulated Facebook groups to find willing donors, no middleman required.")
[on non-materialist physicalism]
Jan, let's assume physicalism. Except at exotic energy regimes, the mathematical framework of modern physics (the Standard Model plus GR) is effectively complete. There's no empirical evidence for quantum fields of insentience. Their existence is a metaphysical assumption. If this assumption is true, then not just the organisation, but also the intrinsic nature of the world's fundamental fields differs inside and outside one's head. The metaphysical assumption leads to the Hard Problem of consciousness. You ought not to exist. Scientists and scientifically-minded academic philosophers alike have seized on the euphemism. “Hard Problem" suggests that subjective experience is a troublesome anomaly to be resolved within the conceptual scheme of scientific materialism rather than its empirical falsification.
So what if we drop the metaphysical assumption and instead embrace the principle of mediocrity? The “fire” in the equations of QFT, i.e. the intrinsic nature of the physical, is actually experiential?
Any good scientific theory should (1) explain all the empirical successes of the old theory, (2) resolve its failures and anomalies and (3) be amenable to (dis)confirmation by making novel, precise, experimentally falsifiable predictions.
Non-materialist physicalism satisfies these three criteria. It's also intuitively crazy. I don’t know if non-materialist physicalism is true.
Facundo, natural selection can't create anything. It can only select. Imagine if we were to construct from scratch a type-identical molecular copy of you. Your namesake would have exactly the same thoughts, feelings, perceptual experiences and "memories". In other words, your kind of thoughts, feelings, perceptual experiences and memories are an intrinsic property of matter and energy. Evolution has harnessed such properties - "chosen" options from a menu. But it didn't create the menu.
Most of us struggle with constitutive panpsychism because the conjecture makes the minimal “psychon” of experience absurdly small. But the absurdity gets even worse. If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then absurdly short-lived physical processes in the CNS are experiential too, for example sub-femtosecond coherent superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors - edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons and so forth. At sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, there is no “combination problem” for panpsychism because (assuming the unitary Schrodinger dynamics) there are no decohered classical neurons, just individual “cat states”.
Intuitively, of course, this kind of ontological unity is irrelevant. We’re looking for a perfect structural match on a timescale of milliseconds, not quantum exotica on a time-scale of femtoseconds!
But if what today’s crude neuroscanning suggests is phenomenal binding by synchrony - a mere restatement of the combination problem - is actually coherent superposition, then the non-classical interference signature will tell us.
In other words, the solution to the combination problem will be settled by interferometry not philosophy.
Absurd, as I said, but I still think the conjecture is worth experimentally falsifying.
What are the implications of imaginary numbers for non-materialist physicalism?
Imaginary numbers are "real"
[on gradients of bliss]
Life based on gradients of superhuman bliss will be good:
DP interviwed by Bold Conjectures:
MP4 : Youtube
But would a utilitronium shockwave be best?
Murine empathy puts some humans to shame:
("Researchers identify mouse brain pathways active during feelings of empathy")
[on lucid dreaming]
I can philosophise in my sleep but not do maths:
Lucid dreamers who do maths ("Lucid dreamers can answer questions and even do MATHS while they're snoozing")
The skilled lucid dreamer can distinguish between his empirical skull and his transcendental skull, his empirical friends & family and his transcendental friends & family (etc). And he can draw exactly the same distinction during waking consciousness...
Do troubled couples need relationship counselling or gene therapy?
Or both? The genetics of marriage satisfaction
("Couples with the CD38 CC genetic variant reported higher levels of trust and marriage satisfaction")
[on coffee, freedom and identity]
Large, black, no sugar:
Coffee and identity
("The Psychological Insight From a $2.95 Cup of Coffee. Every small purchase choice gives us a glimpse of our hidden self-identity.")
Is the fundamental distinction between “me” conceived as an enduring entity that began last century and everyone else or instead between this particular here-and-now and all the others?
Closed, empty and open individualism
If true, I should be sprinting across the Himalays?
https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-04-espresso-latte-decaf-genetic-code.html">Coffee drinking and your genetic code
("Espresso, latte or decaf? Genetic code drives your desire for coffee")
[on why anything exists]
Why does anything exist?
("Why Does Anything Exist? Zero Ontology, Physical Information, and Pure Awareness")
"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution", said evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. If we truly understood why anything exists, then everything we think we know might be recast in an unimaginably new light too. Compare waking up from a dream.
"We note that the collection of all possible descriptions has zero complexity, or information content. This is a consequence of algorithmic information theory, the fundamental theory of computer science. There is a mathematical equivalence between the Everything, as represented by this collection of all possible descriptions and Nothing, a state of no information. Russell Standish in “Theory of Nothing” (2006) Quoted in:
Why does anything exist? "nothingness is theory-dependent."
"Can we define nothing in a way that suppresses all forms of existence?"
"The existence of properties appears inescapable."
Did the Big Bang really "create information"? The Big Bang also has an information paradox
Or conserve its absence? (cf. "no collapse" QM).
[on olfactory syntax]
Avant-garde philosophers or demented glue-sniffers?
Should the study of mind be an experimental discipline...
("What would it be like to have a scent-based medium of thought, with grammar, generative syntax, subclauses, and intentionality? How do we go about exploring the full state-space of scents (or any other qualia variety)")
[on The Hedonistic Imperative]
"El placer es el objeto, el deber y el fin de todos los seres razonables."
Todos deberíamos ser más razonables.
Some Utilitarian Memes
I wonder how many people today know that pain-free surgery was once controversial: Utopian Surgery. Perhaps the same will one day be true of pain-free life.
A world teeming with diverse, phenomenally-bound consciousness but lacking in hedonic tone wouldn't matter any more than a barren world of zombies or micro-experiential zombies. In my view, what really matters are states of the pleasure-pain axis. Evolution has "encephalised" emotion. Encephalisation makes other things seem to matter inherently, even though they matter only derivatively.
Naturally, this perspective is disputed.
The Daily Trip:
To End All Suffering
with David Pearce.
No Damascene conversions promised. And the MP4.
The Hedonistic Imperative
("How good is good?
Viscom, I'm sorry if I came across as dogmatic. I take seriously the possibility that bacteria might undergo a micro-pinprick of unpleasantness in response to noxious stimuli. When I said "Bacteria don't suffer", I was just making the (I‘d assumed fairly uncontroversial) point that such hypothetical unpleasantness didn’t reach the threshold of suffering. The threshold above which a (micro-)pinprick becomes outright suffering may be conventional, but it's not arbitrary. In my view, humans should take extraordinary steps to help even the humblest minds. Hence high-tech Jainism. But right now, if a human or nonhuman animal is sick with a bacterial infection, then we should use antibiotics to treat it. In cases of severe and irreconcilable conflict of interest, the interests of the most sentient beings should come first. IMO.
Angela Merkel attacks Twitter over Trump ban
(1) Does Facebook - mission statement “To Bring The World Closer Together” - have an obligation to retain e.g. hate-groups or instead to promote friendliness in accordance with its raison d'être? Most people on this wall might not use FB for its original purpose, but many millions of people still do.
(2) Do the big social media companies have an obligation to give a platform to users promoting not just obnoxious views but violent insurrection? Imagine if the leader of the losing party in a German election incited his followers to storm the Bundestag, leading to death or injuries to members of Bundestagspolizei. Would we believe that e.g. Twitter had obligation to keep the insurrectionists so they could incite further lawlessness?
[on base-coding babies]
Imagine a world where all new sentience is base-coded and all prospective parents learn coding skills. One can dream...
Based-coded babies I wonder if the parents involved knew that He was really trying to create smart babies and was using HIV protection as a cover? Either way, I hope the debate broadens. Chronic mental and physical pain blight as many lives as the conditions mentioned in the target article.
Why a regular sleep schedule matters:
("Irregular sleep schedules connected to bad moods and depression, study shows")
Sleep and immunity
Good sleep is vital to physical, cognitive & emotional health:
World Sleep Day
("Meet Matthew Walker, the man who can make you (sleep) better in bed")
[on the extended mind hypothesis]
Thanks to evolution, each of us runs a phenomenal world-simulation that takes the guise of one's external surroundings ("The brain is wider than the sky..." etc). Technology allows our minds to extend beyond our virtual empirical skulls into our phenomenal world-simulations. But a mind can't burrow through its physical "transcendental" skull. Just as a tripping LSD user may "become one" with his virtual world, likewise high-tech gadgets enable a drug-naive subject to extend his virtual body and self-module into his virtual environment. But we're still skull-bound.
Does panpsychism imply mathematical entities are conscious?
Dino, first, apologies - I skipped the boring preliminaries of defining our terms. I define "physicalism" as the conjecture that no element of reality is missing from the formalism of (tomorrow's) physics. If we assume that the "fire" in the equations is non-experiential, then we have materialist physicalism. If the “fire” is experiential, we have idealist physicalism. Both are constrained by the mathematical straightjacket of QFT (and general relativity). Both are realist, i.e. the world predates the existence of phenomenally-bound biological minds. But IMO only physicalist idealism is consistent with the empirical evidence. For what it's worth, the approach I explore just transposes the mathematical formalism of a materialist physicalist like Sean Carroll (cf. "Reality as a Vector in Hilbert Space": https://arxiv.org/pdf/2103.09780.pdf
Hilbert space fundamentalism makes my head hurt; but I don't see how our minds are explicable without it.
Bernardo Kastrup is an idealist who attacks physicalism. Perhaps the two positions are best combined. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Quantum field theory describes fields of sentience.
Mysterianism? Taking psychedelics can make one sceptical we'll ever understand consciousness in any deep way. But we can still crack the Hard problem if it's an artefact of materialst metaphysics.
Eliminativism? I share with eliminativists a belief that only the physical is real. But eliminative materialists misconstrue the nature of the physical - and hence are forced to disavow their own minds.
"Not all falsifiable claims, then, are scientific, and not all scientific claims are falsifiable."
("Why “Trusting the Science” Is Complicated")
[on general intelligence?]
Alex, there are some cognitive tasks at which most chimps outperform most humans, just as there some cognitive tasks at which most high-AQ Ashkenazim outperform most low-AQ empaths. But the assumption that prowess in “mind-blind” STEM tasks exhausts general intelligence is as blinkered as the peahen’s assumption that the most spectacular peacock tails exhaust the nature of beauty.
It ain’t so!
("Chimps Outplay Humans in Brain Games. There are ways that chimpanzees are more intelligent than us")
Ernie, when you think of human cognitive deficiencies, do you think of limitations of logico-linguistic reasoning ability, or "IQ", or perhaps our cognitive biases (cf. Cognitive biases), or maybe simply the inability of most of us to become true polymaths as distinct from specialists or superficial generalists? In my view, there are sources of ignorance much deeper:
Faith in scientific rationalism rarely survives a full-blown encounter with the empirical method. The "fire" in the equations is beyond human comprehension:
Psychedelic Therapy Needs to Confront the Mystical
Max, sceptics could turn that argument on its head. Prowess in supposedly "specialised” social cognition enables gifted mind-readers to explore problems in diverse cognitive domains that humans haven’t evolved to tackle - domains where a high AQ/”IQ“ can be a disadvantage. Take investigation of the vast, exotic state-spaces of consciousness opened up by novel designer drugs. Evolution didn’t equip us for the challenge of exploring psychedelia. Unfortunately, the elevated testosterone function of high AQ/”IQ” folk impairs not just social cognition, but also introspection (cf. the extreme male brain theory of autism spectrum disorders). A specialised, supposedly "general" autistic style of thinking is a handicap in these new cognitive domains. High AQ/”IQ” folk, with their different mental operating system from neurotypicals, struggle to understand both their own mental states and the minds of others. It's no coincidence that some high AQ/”IQ” folk are eliminativists, i.e. they don't recognise even the existence of their own consciousness, or the minds of others, or the rich diversity of alien space-spaces of experience.
I’d stress: autistic mathematical geniuses and inventors should be celebrated!
But as far as I can tell, high AQ/”IQ” is a hypermasculine cognitive style, not the essence of general intelligence. Not least, IQ doesn’t test the computational quality of your world-simulation.
Testosterone poisoning can be toxic
Testosterone and impaired generosity
but perhaps only high-AQ hyper-systematisers can save the world.
[on infinitesimal ethics?]
The appalling possibility we are living in a multiverse should be distinguished from the still more appalling idea of physically realised infinities - although some multiverse scenarios assume the latter. Even if reality is finite - I’m not convinced the idea of physically realised infinities makes sense - the world is still intuitively unimaginably big; one sometimes reads expressions like “virtually infinite”. But any finite number is infinitesimally small compared to an notional infinite multiverse.
It’s still an appalling prospect.
[on the Hedonistic Imperative]
A Critique of HI
Felix, yes, I could be hopelessly wrong about timescales. In HI (1995), I predicted that the world's last experience below hedonic zero would be several centuries from now - and it's still my best guess. If Singularitarians and "hard take-off" prophets are correct - or if there is a sea-change in our attitude to the problem of suffering - then maybe a hundred-year timescale would be feasible. But compare the media hysteria over the first CRISPR babies in China, or the title of David Attenborough’s latest Nature "documentary" - Our Perfect Planet - which captures the depth of popular status quo bias about the living world. Pessimistically, maybe thousands rather than hundreds of years of suffering lie ahead. I don't know – and I don’t trust my intuitions either.
Perhaps I’ll take Conundrum's critique one point at a time.
1. "Humans are selfish"
Yes, Humans are selfish, vain, narcissistic, self-aggrandising and zillions more vices besides. But most of us are not malevolent. Sure, humans can sometimes be spiteful - whether to rivals in love, emeries in war, or opponents on a football pitch. There also exists a tiny minority of sadists and even serial killers. Yet most of us tend to be callous, not cruel. We aren’t mirror-touch synaesthetes, but the majority of people don't enjoy witnessing suffering - often it distresses us. So if and when a safe, effective therapy is developed that enables an architecture of mind based on information-sensitive gradients of bliss AND its global distribution is as feasible as, say, the new COVID vaccines, how will most people respond? Will they want the superior new architecture just for themselves and their "tribe"? Or for everyone? I predict most people will be supportive and universalist. I call this, rather grandly, the Principle of Weak Benevolence, aka “no skin off my nose”. Compare how if a beggar asks for money, most people will ignore the request, but if a stranger says they are lost and wants directions, most people will oblige. This trivial example of weak benevolence could be multiplied indefinitely. Tomorrow’s biotech promises to make life based on gradients of bliss equally trivial - that’s the very nature of information-based technologies. Moreover, humans are prone to virtue signalling – and what better way to signal one’s virtue than support for universal happiness? My benevolence is bigger than yours!
Our task is to make the price of benevolence utterly trivial or non-existent.
OK, but what about corporations? After all, corporations are not people; they are amoral and legally obliged to maximise shareholder returns.
Yet once again, corporations virtue-signal too – and their carefully burnished halo contributes to the value of their brands. For instance, how much of Apple’s two-trillion dollar plus valuation derives from brand equity?
Anyhow, I’m sounding like an optimist. I'm not: IMO words can’t do justice to the evil of Darwinian life and the viciously nasty surprises it probably still has in store. But I don’t see human selfishness as an insurmountable obstacle to the abolitionist project.
Will a reproductive revolution of designer babies lead to more genetic and phenotypic diversity or less? And is diversity inherently good or bad? Today, every child born using traditional sexual reproduction is a unique - barring identical twins, triplets etc - and untested genetic experiment. In some ways, genetic diversity will indeed soon diminish. Consider the two thousand or so disease-causing alleles of the cystic fibrosis gene. In a world of ubiquitous designer babies, selection pressure against all disease-causing alleles will be intense. Good! In some notional (Chinese-run?) state-run eugenics program, entire genomes might be standardised too. Yet my working assumption is that Western liberal democracy will prevail. Reproductive decisions will remain in the hands of prospective parents – probably with AI-assisted professional counselling. What hedonic range, hedonic set-points and pain-thresholds will most prospective parents want for their kids? I reckon selection pressure will intensify for the creation of ever happier kids in a recursive cycle of self-improvement. This intensifying selection pressure needn't entail reduced overall genetic or phenotypic diversity. For a start, happier people are responsive to a broader range of rewarding stimuli than depressives. Crudely, happiness promotes behavioural diversity; depression suppresses it. Depressives get “stuck in a rut”. And genome-editing can potentially create more genetic diversity, too, not less. This is because all sorts of new genes and allelic combinations can be created that could never have arisen under a regime of natural selection; their notional creation would entail crossing forbidden “fitness gaps”. Needless to say, I’ve no crystal ball. But we shouldn’t imagine transhumans as genetic identikit clones. Indeed, perhaps we may see an explosion of genetic, psychological and behavioural diversity to rival the Cambrian. My only moderately confident prediction is that hedonically sub-zero states will be become biologically impossible. Selection pressure against the nastier genes of Darwinian life will soon be ferocious...
The negative utilitarian may be sceptical that unethical behaviour can exist in a world without experience below hedonic zero - as distinct from the functional analogues of unethical behaviour. But let's stick to a more conventional ethic than NU. Let's further assume that no moral enhancement technologies or their genetic counterparts) become widespread in future, just hedonic uplift. Will radical hedonic enrichment leave us vulnerable to personal or sexual violation: simply too happy to care? I'm sceptical.
OK, take sexual coercion.
[“Consider a particular example. A person desiring sexual relations with another could pursue this activity even without consent of the other person. Maybe that person wouldn’t even be able to deny the advances, as that would require having a negative attitude towards the proposal. The only tool she’ll have is the gradient of bliss. Either she will be blissfully violated or the insistent romantic would have to be controlled away by an implant in his brain, as he himself would be unable to simulate potential negative experience from his victim’s point of view nor would he be capable of predicting negative consequences that could fall on him. Gradients of bliss won’t inform him it’s wrong to impose on someone. In the world where people see and experience only gradients of bliss, consent would not exist. No one would think of asking for consent, and no one could deny giving implicit consent. What this suggest is that the preference architecture would have to be rewritten and maybe supplanted by brain implants that would tell us what to want and not to want at any given moment.”]
Who are the most common victims of sexual exploitation and violence today? Depressed, downtrodden women who don't have the self-confidence to leave an abusive partner ("he only hits me because he loves me") are more vulnerable to abuse than emotionally robust self-confident women with healthy self-esteem. Other things being equal, raising hedonic tone makes people more emotionally self-sufficient and less willing to be bossed around. More generally, (super)happy people are more likely to be active citizens than depressives. Low mood is associated with weakness, subordination and defeat. Good mood is empowering. Let’s go for it.
“Julio Cabrera explains that moral life is impossible, for it’s too often the case that realizing a project of one person necessitates preventing other people from achieving their goals. Cabrera calls this inevitable fact of social life the moral impediment. So, if there are inherent conflicts when people aim for contrary objectives, then how would happy humans deal with this? Will they be programmed to want the same things, not to step on each other’s toes?”
One of the many beauties of hedonic recalibration is how conflicting preferences are sidestepped. Yes, Darwinian life is riddled with irreconcilable conflicts. So-called preference utilitarianisms is a contradiction-in-terms for social primates. Whether in football, chess, politics, or mating and dating, no one can have everything they want - not even close/. All traditional utopian dreams founder accordingly.
Optionally, at least, all such dramas (and more) can play out in a civilisation with a hedonic range of +5 to +15 – or indeed a hedonic +70 to +100. But critically, such conflict can be drained of the poison of hedonically sub-zero states. Future conflict won't matter ethically in the same way as now – even though some people may be (hyper-)motivated to pursue their sometimes conflicting goals. So whereas I might dream of social life as an idealised version of being perpetually "loved up" on MDMA, the real-life biohappiness revolution may take a very different course…
5. “Electronic shepherds”
"Without being sensitive to various negative stimuli and social signals, people wouldn’t be motivated to keep their hygiene, to sleep, to drink and eat. Without fear, what would stop them from walking into an incoming bus? Pearce imagines that gradients of bliss should overtake the motivational system. However, in our daily lives we don’t do the most pleasurable things all the time. We often choose to do things that give us less satisfaction. But when we can rely only on the gradients of bliss, what would stop anyone from doing something less pleasurable like going into the traffic and blissfully dying? The solution to this would take the form of electronic prostheses—implants in the brain that would recognize the dangers and take control of our volition and behavior to steer us into safety. These electronic shepherds, as I like to call them, would de facto control our lives, making us into very passive experience machines, unable to rebel. Pearce has a response to this attack at the ready. Supposedly the implants could be deactivated. But how a person swimming in the soup of bliss could recognize when to switch off the electronic shepherd and when to switch it back on? And after switching off the implant, what’s left to stop anyone from violating an innocent person, when the perpetrator is chasing a higher level of bliss like a junkie?”
Transhumanist speculation about a civilisation based on gradients of superhuman bliss as sci-fi. Consider instead today’s extreme hyperthymics – the global hedonic elite. (Recall that hyperthymia isn’t unipolar mania or bipolar disorder - pathologies of mind that can cause all manner of disaster). The elite 0.01% don’t manifest the signs and symptoms described in Conundrum’s quote above. Depressives are more likely to manifest self-neglect. Simply ratcheting up hedonic set-points to the level of today’s hedonic elite would massively enhance average quality of life. World-wide hyperthymia would be a godsend. Of course, there are still pitfalls. “Count no man happy until he is dead” (Solon), as the Greeks used to say. And I worry about cognitive bias. Truly happy people struggle to grasp the sheer enormity of suffering and the urgency of its abolition. But none of these pitfalls strikes me as fatal...
6. Extinction risk
“One of the most known critic of the technological society is Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. He’s been writing articles and books on the dangers and detrimental effects of technology for decades. In his magnum opus Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, Kaczynski makes a reasoned case that the progress of technology will lead to extinction of complex life on Earth…”
Will advanced technology lead to human extinction?
Yes – but IMO not in some dire, apocalyptic sense. Take AI, which has currently superseded WMD in the rationalist community as the biggest threat to human civilisation: DP on the Intelligence Explosion. As far as I can tell, everything that AI can do can be incorporated on embedded neurochips so that you can do it too – and much more. Mankind’s successors won’t be insentient machines, but our genetically rewritten and AI-augmented descendants. OK, this response scarcely begins to get to grips with the risks posed by advanced technology. But surely these challenges are not peculiar to HI? A civilisation based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss will grapple with the revolutionary potential artificial intelligence no less than today’s misery-ridden Darwinian regime.
7. Danger of System Malfunction:
If we do phase out the biology of suffering, could it ever recur? The most extreme example of recurrence would be an advanced civilisation that chooses to recreate Darwinian life in its entirety in the guise of running an ancestor-stimulation. Elsewhere I’ve outlined why I believe that ancestor-simulations (and digital sentience - Ancestor simulations and digital war gaming) are both technically and sociologically infeasible. Let’s here stick to the near-term future. Could a genetic mutation arise that generates hedonically sub-zero states again?
So long as we are mindful of the risk, a whole arsenal of fail-safe prevention mechanisms can be introduced. I presume we’ll map our the neurobiological contours of the Evil Zone, i.e. the molecular signature of experience below hedonic zero, and construct multiple molecular ring-fences around it. Half a dozen dangerous mutations would then simultaneously need to arise to penetrate the Evil Zone. And regardless of your favoured scenario of the future, some kind of global panopticon probably lies ahead. Genomes can be monitored. Privacy-protection is relevant to (trans)humans, not to a mouse or a mollusc. We’re not going to run out of computer power. In a Darwinian world, ubiquitous surveillance can be sinister. But to safeguard the molecular foundations of paradise, I don’t see a problem with “AI nannies” for humbler lifeforms any more than for human toddlers. The price of perpetual happiness may not be eternal vigilance; but let's assume otherwise. Surely it’s a price worth paying.
I guess Conundrum would respond that the risk of recurrence still exists. From the perspective of suffering-focused ethics, we should “walk away from Omelas”. But this objection takes us back to practical politics. Life-denying political prescriptions such as _naïve_ versions of negative utilitarianism, “strong” antinatalism, efilism, world-destructionism (etc) are at best a distraction. At worst, their advocacy alienates a vast swathe of life-lovers who could otherwise be powerful allies:
Benevolent World Exploders
But the only realistic way I know to destroy Darwinian malware is gene-editing.
“the whole abolitionist project is inherently doomed to failure”
Given the state of the world today, I can understand this sentiment. And if you contemplate just how socially marginal we are, the whole project can seem a pipedream. But imagine if – as is quite possible sooner or later – a larger-than-life billionaire or world-famous media-personality decides to make the cause his own. The example I often give is Elon Musk. Imagine if instead of a building ten-trillion-dollar colony on Mars, Elon were proposing an equally ambitious and expensive project to reprogram the biosphere. Would a Hundred-Year Plan to phase out the biology of suffering still seem so ridiculously far-fetched? And whether the abolitionist project takes a hundred, a thousand, or even ten-thousand years, I just don’t see any alternative. Life-denying solutions to the problem of suffering won’t fly – politically, socially, or demographically. They are a dead-end. Knowledge of their futility isn’t enough to suppress antinatalist or benevolent world-exploder fantasies about terminating the whole Darwinian horror-show. Occasionally, I have intrusive thoughts myself. Yet intellectually, we should recognise that such fantasies are sterile escapism. They won’t solve the problem of suffering.
By contrast, a biohappiness revolution can work – it’s just a monumental political, social and technical challenge.
Darren, it all boils down to what kind of safeguards and who decides. At one extreme, the assisted right to die could be made extraordinarily difficult to exercise. At the other extreme, if there were walk-in clinics where anyone could be administered - or self-administer - a Brompton cocktail, then tens of millions of people world-wide would presumably exit each year - as distinct from the annual 850,000 or so who take their own lives today.
What's the right "balance"? I don't know. My partial cop-out of an answer is that we should be taking extraordinary steps to make sure no one wants to die, including direct reward pathway stimulation in case of refractory depression and neuropathic pain.
[on transhumanism in Turkish]
Transhumanist ideas are somewhat controversial in Turkey. An English translation of my CINS magazine interview (pdf) is uploaded below:
Insanlik icin en buyuk tehdit transhumanizm degil, bizzat insan dogasidir
("The greatest threat to humanity is not transhumanism, but human nature itself")
[on COVID, racism and xenophobia]
Any advanced civilisation would find the differences between members of human ethnic groups are trivial compared to what unites us. Alas, one of the traits that unites us is a shared predisposition to racism and xenophobia during epidemics and pandemics.
Epidemics and pandemics can exacerbate xenophobia, bigotry
Post-materialist science? Unlike Christof Koch, I don’t see how integrated information theory (IIT) solves the combination problem. But I’m sympathetic to consciousness fundamentalism. Only the physical is real. But perhaps the intrinsic nature of the physical isn’t what materialists suppose...
Is consciousness everywhere?
What is a quantum field?
Brian, let’s consider just the physicalist version of panpsychism. Experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Consciousness in the world outside your head is as minimal and uninteresting as when you are dreamlessly asleep. Such fields of primordial what-it’s-likeness are not bound into minds. Their behaviour is described by exactly the same formalism of orthodox quantum field theory. What happens when you wake up? On the orthodox materialist view, consciousness is created ex nihilo. Hence the so-called Hard Problem. By contrast, if constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism is true, then “waking up” doesn’t change the intrinsic nature of the world’s fundamental fields of what-it’s-likeness. Rather, they are locally reorganised into the phenomenal world-simulation your mind is now running. I’m interested in how such phenomenal binding is possible.
A critique of "bonding" solutions to the phenomenal binding/combination problem:
Against phenomenal bonding
By contrast, quantum superpositions are individual states, despite their multiple components. “Cat states” have an ontological unity. Therefore, if (1) constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism is true; and (2) quantum mechanics is complete, then phenomenal binding in the CNS is guaranteed at temporally fine-grained resolutions.
I won't believe it until I see the interference signature!
And the relevance to HI?
Well, only subjects of experience with a phenomenally-bound pleasure-pain axis matter. Only minds have moral status. Artificial digital zombies like programmable digital computers are just useful tools – even as they increasingly outperform sentient beings in multiple cognitive domains:
Disclaimer: I could very well be mistaken. Believers in digital minds would say so. But it’s an empirical question, not “just” philosophy.
[on the intrisic nature argument and objective value]
Vignesh, Is Heaven better than hell? Or is this just a subjective value-judgement, neither true not false? Most scientific rationalists believe that only the physical is real. Naively, there is no place in a scientific ontology for objective moral values. Hence antirealism about value and moral nihilism. In this FB group, we support the anti-suffering "team", but our “team” is no more right or wrong than a different “team” that supports rape, torture and child abuse.
I agree only the physical is real.
But what do we mean by "physical"?
Presumably whatever the equations of physics describe. If the equations describe fields of insentience, then we get materialist physicalism and The Hard Problem. Materialist physicalism fails the test of empirical adequacy.
By contrast, non-materialist physicalism offers an empirically adequate alternative: experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Most of the controversy around the intrinsic nature argument centres on whether it solves the Hard Problem of consciousness - or is simply insane. But the intrinsic nature argument has implications for ethics too. On this account, agony and despair are disvaluable by their very nature. The badness of agony is self-intimating – it’s an objective property of some physical states that they are disvaluable to the subject.
So what about ethical disagreement?
Within this framework, disputes derive from ignorance. Evolution does not promote an impartial “view from nowhere”, but rather egocentric virtual worlds that differ primarily in the identity of their protagonist.
I say a bit more e.g.
DP on meta-ethics
More evidence for the inflammatory theory of depression:
Neuroglia and mood
("Immune cells found in the brain are behind the depression experienced in inflammation")
Aging and depression are a bigger planetary scourge than COVID. Conversely, mood enhancement can be rejuvenating.
Major depressive disorder causes brain aging
("The functional MRI is a promising aging clock.")
But hedonic uplift is a better recipe for mental health than blown minds.
The ketamine blew my mind
("Can psychedelics cure addiction and depression?)
Who gets a dedicated neuron in your head?
Multimodal Neurons in Artificial Neural Networks
“Reality continues to ruin my life.”
(Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes)
How well do you deal with "fleeting frustrations"?
("How your brain turns fleeting frustrations into long-term negativity")
“Forever is composed of nows.”
What would you choose?
The most meaningful moments
If Darwinian social life were a drug, it would be illegal...
Why we hate-follow people on social media
("From politicians to influencers, school friends to colleagues, people are increasingly using their social media platform to keep their friends close - but their enemies closer")
It’s painful to say, but IMO raising default hedonic tone and hedonic set-points is the key to progress in psychiatric medicine, not psychedelia.
The Psychedelic Revolution Is Coming.
("Psychiatry May Never Be the Same. Psilocybin and MDMA are poised to be the hottest new therapeutics since Prozac. Universities want in, and so does Wall Street. Some worry a push to loosen access could bring unintended consequences.")
Low-dose MDMA isn't really a psychedelic in the sense of psilocybin. And I think MDMA does have a potential psychotherapeutic role. But the people best able to appreciate psychedelics are the psychologically healthiest. I'm sceptical that psychedelics can safely and reliably offer a route to emotional wellness for depressed and/or anxious people.
[on the DP credo]
What are your philosophical positions in a paragraph?
1. You are right: the intrinsic/extrinsic division is artificial. All one ever knows directly, including what the perceptual naïve realist conceives as physical objects in his local surroundings, are the phenomenal properties of one’s own mind. Thanks to evolution, countess other world-simulations exist, each with a differing protagonist. If non-materialist ("idealist") physicalism is true, then there is no Hard Problem of consciousness because the world's fundamental fields are experiential; but in the abiotic universe, fields of experience as described by the mathematical formalism of quantum field theory aren't phenomenally bound into world-simulations. On this conjecture, primordial experience is around 13.8 billion years old; but our minds are around 540(?) million years old. I say a bit more here:
What is your opinion on Philip Goff's ‘Galileo’s error’?
2. "hedonic zero" is simply experience that is neither good nor bad: emotionally neutral experience that lacks hedonic tone. "Mixed states" complicate any calculus. Evolution via natural selection has “encephalised” pain and pleasure so we believe all sorts of things inherently matter beyond states of the pleasure-pain axis. But their mattering is derivative. Could there be another axis of (dis)value? If so, then some kind of meta-axis of (dis)value would be needed as a metric to govern trade-offs with states of the pleasure-pain axis. I'm unconvinced.
3. Naively, pain and pleasure are symmetrical. Hence the appeal of classical utilitarianism (cf. utilitarianism.com). On the face of it, classical utilitarianism offers the best way to naturalise (dis)value. But in another sense, pain and pleasure are morally incommensurable. Worse, it’s not clear (to me) how to regulate trade-offs even within the pain-pleasure axis because “more is different” – qualitatively different. Alas, I don’t know the right answer.
Abolishing suffering via biotech:
Youtube & MP4
[on plant (in)sentience]
Consciousness = subjective experience, qualia, raw feels, the "what-it's-likeness" of experience.
binding = the ability of animals with nervous systems to generate feature-bound perceptual objects (local binding) populating a unitary world-simulation (global binding, aka the unity of perception and the unity of the self). When we're awake, the phenomenal world-simulations of human and nonhumans animals are updated in almost real time ("perception"). When we dream, they are autonomous. When we’re dreamlessly asleep, phenomenal binding is absent.
Members of the plant kingdom did not evolve energetically costly nervous systems and hence the ability to run phenomenally-bound world-simulations because they are sessile - they lack the capacity for rapid, self-propelled motion. (Anomalies like carnivorous plants don't alter this fact; a Venus fly-trap has "trigger hairs", not a central nervous system.)
Many information-processing systems that lack phenomenal binding can still track features of their internal and external environment. Such systems range from your PC desktop to a termite colony to the financial markets to nation-states to the root vegetables that we eat. If monistic physicalism is true and “strong” emergence is hokum, such systems don’t have a hive mind.
"But you can't prove an uprooted carrot doesn't experience agony!" says the concerned meat-eater.
[on The Ones Who Walk Away From Omalas]
Would you walk away from Omelas?
And what does “walking away from Omelas” entail?
Long-time HI supporter Cynthia Stewart asked me a question on the role of fiction in philosophy:
Do you recommend any fiction to help inform one's philosophy?
Cynthia, normally my answer would be a qualified "no". It's better to set out one's premises and chain of reasoning explicitly so they can be critiqued. Does one's argument contain suppressed premises, hidden presuppositions or background assumptions that could cast doubt on one's conclusions? A novel or an allegory doesn’t lend itself to rigorous scrutiny in the same way. From this perspective, fiction has only a supplementary role to play in philosophy.
However, I make a few exceptions. Here is one. First some context. As you know, I advocate that humans abolish the biology of suffering throughout the living world and replace today's misery and malaise with life based on gradients of intelligent bliss. However, some otherwise sympathetic people are surprised - and even appalled – when they learn I’m negative utilitarian (NU). Negative utilitarians believe that our overriding moral obligation is to minimise and prevent suffering. Mitigating or preventing suffering ethically outweighs creating any amount of pleasure. It's not necessary to be a negative utilitarian to sign up to the abolitionist project; but that’s my own rationale. Ethically, all the superhuman bliss ahead that transhumanists anticipate is just the icing on the cake. Alas, “normal” people tend to be aghast or dismissive if they learn you are a negative utilitarian because NU seems to have the following counterintuitive implication. Hypothetically, if it were possible painlessly to destroy the world, then we should press the metaphorical OFF switch in order to prevent more suffering. Indeed, NU seems to have an even more counterintuitive implication. As we know, the real world has atrocious suffering, but an NU would (hypothetically) painlessly destroy the world to avert even a trivial amount of distress. Most people recoil from the idea of retiring life on Earth to prevent even unimaginably vast suffering, let alone so as to prevent a a "trivial" amount. Negative utilitarianism is offensive to common sense.
However, consider Ursula Le Guin’s work of philosophical fiction, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973). Le Guin’s fable tells the story of Omelas, a city of marvellous delights whose existence depends - for unspecified reasons - on the torment of a single child in a basement. The citizens of Omelas know about this abused child. But the child’s horrific existence doesn’t stop them having a wonderful time. And indeed, on the Benthamite felicific calculus of classical utilitarianism, why not? Compared to the immensity and rich diversity of pleasures that Omelas offers, the torment of a single child is a mere pinprick in the grand scheme of things. Yet in Ursula le Guin’s fable, a small minority of citizens don't consider the price worth paying. So they walk away from Omelas. Hence the title.
I hope that our glorious transhuman future holds fabulous delights – Omelas Plus. I work towards that end. But like any negative utilitarian, I would still unhesitatingly "walk away from Omelas” if ever the opportunity arose. What’s more, a great many people who read Ursula Guin’s Fable say they would walk away too. Would you? Even readers who report they wouldn't walk away rarely condemn readers who say they’d exit rather than be complicit in the abuse of a child.
Back In the real world, what does it mean - and what might it mean in future - to "walk away from Omelas”?
The answer to this question is controversial (cf. The dubious philosophy of blowing up the universe). The genius of Ursula Le Guin’s allegory lies in how a piece of philosophical fiction inspires debate on a topic otherwise beyond the pale. Limitations of the human mind mean that treatises of academic philosophy can only go so far.
Johan, although Smart's reply to Popper is often wrongly reckoned the reductio ad absurdum of NU, it's the Pinprick Argument that really seems devastating. OK, maybe there's no more reason to expect a true theory of ethics to respect common sense than quantum physics. But the idea of destroying paradise just to avoid a pinprick feels too crazy for words. I used to chat about it with Nick Bostrom - a severe critic of NU - but I don't know who first made the objection to NU ethics. It's kind of obvious, but that's no reason not to properly credit it.
Pain versus nociception:
How your brain creates pain
Life on Earth needs a more civilised signalling system:
The cure for pain (Wired)
Biotech can make suffering optional - but not without a political, social and biological-genetic revolution:
The eradication of suffering (Wikipedia)
Sentient life deserves a more civilised signalling system, but a biohappiness revolution calls for political as well as biohacking genius.
Why emotional pain hurts ("'Hurt feelings' is more than a metaphor")
Disastrous, I fear:
Why a Columbia Neuroscientist Acknowledged Using Heroin
("Carl Hart felt he had to ‘come out of the closet.’ He knew there’d be downsides.")
We are all born opioid addicts, but the way to tackle our endogenous opioid addiction isn't by taking heroin.
A more orthodox approach:
Sunlight and mood
("Scientists examine the effect of daylength on the brain’s opioid system")
[on the world's oldest person?]
Jeanne/Yvonne Calment (Wikipedia)
Did Jeanne Calment live to be 122?
It's not just the Russians! I used to believe; but I now lean towards scepticism. The most common source of inflated longevity claims in otherwise well-documented cases is identity substitution. Identity substitution has already twice tripped up Guinness validators - the Joubert and Izumi cases (cf. https://gerontology.wikia.org/wiki/Pierre_Joubert & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigechiyo_Izumi. Ruling out an identity switch in an era of mass-photography ought to be straightforward. Therefore the selective destruction of photographic and documentary evidence by Calment's heir, reportedly on her instructions, is a very unfortunate coincidence.
The case may be genuine. But if we agree with the scientific maxim that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (ECREE), then is a nagging scepticism here unreasonable? It's regrettable the debate has become so politicised.
The selective destruction of evidence could be entirely innocent. On the other hand, if Yvonne Calment usurped her mother's identity for financial reasons, then exposure would mean Raffray's heirs had a claim against the Calment estate ("In life, one sometimes makes bad deals" - Jeanne/Yvonne Calment). My view? Well, I’m not sure it’s relevant for Wikipedia purposes. Let’s just say financial chicanery among humans is extremely common, whereas living into one’s thirteenth decade is vanishingly rare.
How would we respond if a publicity-loving, supposedly 120-year-old Russian claimant to World's Oldest Person instructed selective destruction of documentary and photographic evidence? We'd probably be rather sceptical of the extraordinary longevity claim - especially if the claimant and her family had a financial incentive to fib about her identity and age. Patriotic Russians would probably dismiss Western "conspiracy theorists". They’d tell us top Russian validators had authenticated the case. Perhaps they'd be right! But consider the comparative frequency of living into one’s thirteenth decade and misrepresentation for monetary gain. I hate being cynical, but if we're Bayesian rationalists, then a verdict of "not proven" would be wise.
Rupetrt, extremely premature babies (born after 21-22 weeks' gestation) are clearly conscious. If consciousness depended on neocortical function, maybe 15-16 weeks would be a credible estimate; but neocortical chauvinism is false. Maybe six or seven weeks?? The neural plate forms as early as 16 days after conception. We are really asking about the approximate age of the earliest phenomenally-bound experiences; and the basis of phenomenal binding is not scientifically understood.
Artificial wombs will transform the abortion debate. But the arguments can feel surreal. Pigs and other nonhuman animals whom humans factory-farm and slaughter are as sentient and sapient as toddlers. Many "pro-life" advocates eat meat. Pigs matter far more than a human foetus - though ideally we should protect the interests of both. Likewise human and nonhuman animal mothers.
[on hyperthymia, hypomania and mania]
Secular scientific rationalism can be a sign of masked depression. But posthumans will (probably!) be hyperthymic rather than hypermanic.
("An Atheist Neuroscientist Finds Faith in Bipolar Mania. Why does bipolar mania cause hyper-religiosity, even in a nonbeliever like me?")
Posthuman life will be of superhuman intensity.
("Like Seeing Colors for the First Time: Superheroes and Mania. Why did bipolar mania give me "supernatural" senses?")
“Some wounds run too deep for the healing.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
Another reason to edit our Darwinian source-code...
Why We Can't Forgive Or Forget
[on philosophy and the meaning of life]
Cynthia, I'm inclined to agree with you. But if we want to promote a biological-genetic happiness revolution, then the option of value- and preference-conservation is a strong selling-point. In practice, transhumans may come to regard most of the things humans care about as junk. This prediction is not a recipe for winning hearts and minds.
[on micro-experiential zombies]
Maximilian, from antiquity to the present, lots of philosophically-minded people have occasionally wondered if they could be surrounded by zombies, i.e. the sceptical Problem of Other Minds. (See too the non-sceptical belief that the inhabitants of your dreaming AND waking world-simulation are zombies, but the zombies of your waking life are the avatars of sentient beings: https://www.hedweb.com/quora/2015.html#cartesian). By contrast, far fewer people have sceptically wondered if they might live in a world of micro-experiential zombies, i.e. I am the only phenomenally-bound subject of experience. For even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, temporally-coarse grained inspection of your surgically-exposed cortex gives me no obvious reason to believe you are a unitary subject. Your CNS appears under light microscopy to be a pack of decohered neurons - just like your enteric nervous system, which I confidently believe is a zombie.
Anyhow, let's assume, as you suggest, that monistic physicalism is vindicated by future experiment. Tomorrow's neuroscience / interferometry detects a perfect structural match between our minds and (ultimately) the mathematical formalism of physics. (I can't overstress how far scientifically out a limb is my “Schrödinger’s neurons” proposal. Most professionals who understand decoherence would reckon it’s crazy, so the chances are they are right.) If this structural match is perfect, then why aren't we all just p-zombies, i.e. organisms devoid of qualia, whether phenomenally bound or otherwise?
To answer the question, we must return to the intrinsic nature argument. The only direct evidence you have of the intrinsic nature of the physical, as distinct from its structural-relational properties, consists of the properties of your own mind. You’ve no reason to believe that the intrinsic nature of the world’s fundamental quantum fields differs inside and outside your skull...
Tim, yes, a classical Turing machine can simulate any computer algorithm. But biological minds can do all kinds of things that Turing machine zombies can't, ranging from running phenomenally-bound world-simulations to exploring the nature, varieties and causal efficacy of conscious experience - as now!
No, quantum supremacy…
[on introspection and mathematical physics]
Andres, you're right about Feynman’s introspective prowess. Alas, introspection is not highly valued in modern society. Imagine if a school student were to say that he was too busy intensively studying his own thought processes to study for a SAT test. Neglect of introspection is a recipe for ignorance of oneself AND the disciplines one is supposedly studying. This is because one is oblivious to how the medium of representation is shaping its nominal content.
Physicists may misunderstand the nature of the matter and energy for a different but related reason too. Imagine if Ed Witten had said, "Science can't explain the empirical evidence” rather than “Science can't explain consciousness” (cf. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/world-s-smartest-physicist-thinks-science-can-t-crack-consciousness/). Maybe quantum fields of insentience will strike post-materialist science as akin to fields of luminiferous aether.
Feynman once mischievously remarked, "If all mathematics disappeared today, physics would be set back exactly one week". This provocative comment is wrong not just because modern technology civilisation depends on the mathematical apparatus of QFT. Mathematics is also critical to understanding the physical world because mathematical physics is really the sturdy of patterns of qualia.
Naturally, this is not how Feynman conceived of QED. Transposing the mathematical machinery of modern physics onto an empirically adequate idealist ontology takes strong nerves.
Machiavelli, I don't know. As it stands, the claim is obviously untenable - there will never be another Faraday. A more accurate synopsis of Feynman's views might be:
"..To summarize, I would use the words of Jeans, who said that "the Great Architect seems to be a mathematician". To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature. C.P. Snow talked about two cultures. I really think that those two cultures separate people who have and people who have not had this experience of understanding mathematics well enough to appreciate nature once."
"It is too bad that it has to be mathematics, and that mathematics is hard for some people. It is reputed - I do not know if it is true - that when one of the kings was trying to learn geometry from Euclid he complained that it was difficult. And Euclid said, "There is no royal road to geometry". And there is no royal road. Physicists cannot make a conversion to any other language. If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in. She offers her information only in one form; we are not so unhumble as to demand that she change before we pay any attention."
("The Character of Physical Law" by Richard P. Feynman, MIT Press, 1967)
For what it's worth, I think most idealists and panpsychists - including Phil Goff in Galileo's Error - draw the wrong conclusion from the inability of modern science to explain consciousness and hence the empirical evidence. Mathematics is indeed the language of Nature. But materialist physicalists misinterpret the nature of the physical that the formalism describes.
Roger Penrose? Explaining how Penrose’s three levels interact is clearly a monumental challenge. Alternatively, reality has only one level, qualia, exhaustively described by the equation(s) of mathematical physics. The possibility that mathematical physics is about patterns of qualia is the purest expression of the intrinsic nature argument, i.e. subjective experience discloses the essence of the physical. If so, then Galileo was right about the mathematisation of Nature - just not in the way materialists imagine. In fairness to mathematical platonists like Roger Penrose, nominalising quantum mechanics is extremely hard:
Can quantum mechanics be nominalised
The Quantum Field Theory on Which the Everyday World Supervenes
Propaganda, I fear. And the everyday world? Or your everyday world-simulation? Science should be empirically adequate. So a theory that predicts we should be zombies fails. By contrast, transposing the mathematical apparatus of quantum field theory onto an idealist ontology gives an empirically adequate description of the natural world with immense explanatory and predictive power. On this story, realism and physicalism are true. But the intrinsic nature of the physical differs from what our naive materialist intuitions suppose.
[on the fine-tuning argument for a Creator/Simulator]
God? Sadly the obvious explanation of the fine-tuning is that it's an anthropic selection effect. In all the quasi-classical Everett branches that don't support life, there is no one around to marvel at the unremarkable absence of fine-tuning. And there's nothing fine-tuned about the multiverse. If the superposition principle is truly universal, then any linear combination of solutions to the Schrödinger equation will also be a solution. Moreover - unlike a Simulator or nested hierarchy of Simulators - the multiverse of unitary-only QM offers a potential explanation-space for everything. The information content of reality = 0! (cf. Why does anything exist?)
Simulation Theodicy. Why create anti-Buddhist virtual worlds with such pointless, unspeakable cruelty and suffering as ours? This scenario utterly defeats my comprehension. And this isn't "just" an ethical point. Superintelligence presumably entails a superhuman cognitive capacity for perspective-taking - a richer capacity than even the most empathetic mirror-touch synaesthete today. If so, then why not create diverse digital paradises?
[on plausible futures]
Alas some days the prospect of life based on gradients of superhuman bliss doesn't feel especially plausible:
DP interviwed by Plausible Futures
A plan, a vision or a daydream? Some days a transhuman world based on gradients of intelligent bliss can feel like an idle fantasy:
Maladaptive daydreaming disorder
("People with “Maladaptive Daydreaming” spend an average of four hours a day lost in their imagination")
[on digital sentience and the binding problem]
Digital sentience and the binding problem
(Magnus Vinding interviews DP. A slightly fuller version of the interview is here)
Thanks Magnus! The computer and AI revolution has been marked by the progressive and accelerating divorce of intelligent behaviour from consciousness. Unlike so many predictions of the future of AI, the conjecture that our machines will one day "wake up" doesn’t rest on extrapolation - or indeed any proposed mechanism. And I suspect many AI researchers who assume digital computers will become conscious also assume that consciousness can't play any vital computational-functional role in intelligence; it's just a weird implementation detail of biological minds.
By contrast, as you’ve gathered, I think digital zombies are cognitively handicapped. Classical Turing machines will remain invincibly ignorant of what they lack.
Tim, two separate questions. 1) Can programmable digital computers, or classically parallel connectionist systems, support phenomenally-bound experience? If physicalism is true, i.e. no spooky, irreducible "strong" emergence, then the answer is "no". It's still "no" even if consciousness is fundamental to the world, i.e., even if constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism is true. It’s "no" even if we replace the discrete 1s and 0s and logic gates (or nodes of a connectionist network) of classical information processors with discrete pixels of experience.
Of course, physicalism may be false. But let's not go down that route.
2a) Can phenomenally bound minds such as us perform any well-defined cognitive tasks that can't be performed by a classical Turing machine, or alternatively could everything that we can do be executed by a programmable (micro-experiential) zombie? ("You insist that there is something that a machine can't do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that." - von Neumann)
2b) If so, how? After all, telepathy and precognition would give us computational advantages over classical computers too.
As an example of 2a, I'm interested in investigating the billions(?) of kinds of consciousness that have never been recruited by natural selection for any evolutionary purpose (cf. https://erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt.shtml etc). And the only (theoretical) way I know that a classical Turing machine zombie could be programmed to perform such a daunting cognitive task would be for it to program the genetic blueprint of machines with a radically different architecture, e.g. biological humans. So yes, futuristic classical digital computers can notionally do everything we can do - but only by bioprinting the genetic source-code for sentient creatures like us!
I won't rehash my speculations on quantum mind (2b) here - just stress that the proposal that phenomenal binding is non-classical isn't a philosophical opinion. It's a conjecture that interferometry can (dis)confirm. I think it’s a crazy idea too; but that’s not the point.
Exponential growth of digital computer power may allow simulation of the 500-million-neuron enteric nervous system. Next the mind-brain? Well, I'm all in favour of mass destructive uploading in the name of whole brain emulation: destructive uploading would solve all our problems! The upshot would be a world of micro-experiential zombies. No more suffering. Perhaps someone who doesn’t want to be zombified should first try, say, selective replacement of their V4 cortical neurons – destruction causes total cerebral achromatopsia - with their supposed silicon surrogates and connectome. If phenomenal binding is a classical phenomenon, then not merely will the subject continue to experience colour, but perceptual objects in their virtual world will continue to seem inherently colourful as now, i.e. binding would be preserved.
I predict instead total cerebral achromatopsia.
Now colour-blind, the chastened Turing machine functionalist calls the whole experiment off...
Paras, if we were talking about classical fields, then structure might seem impossible. We'd simply be patterns of mind-dust. But what does it feel like to be a quantum superposition of different qualia? Multiple quantum states can be added together ("superposed") to create other valid quantum states; and conversely, every quantum state can be represented as the sum of multiple other distinct states. Normally, quantum theorists would assume that these superposed states are non-experiential. But if they are experiential, then superpositions of what would otherwise be discrete feature-processors (colour, shape, motion etc) are experienced as individual perceptual objects.
Virtually every other interpretation of quantum mechanics tries to explain why we never experience superpositions, just definite outcomes. I'm conjecturing instead that we experience only superpositions. Our minds are "designed" by Nature to confuse vehicle and content. Without the superposition principle, the structure of phenomenally-bound "observations" of definite outcomes would be impossible.
Yes, crazy stuff.
Dustin, at a minimum, any scientifically adequate theory of consciousness must be empirically adequate. It should be physicalist. It should make precise and genuinely novel empirical predictions. It should account for the (1) existence, (2) binding (3) diversity (4) causal efficacy of experience. The quantum-theoretic version of the intrinsic-nature argument satisfies these criteria. It also explains why we are subjects of experience and classical digital computers and connectionist systems are micro-experiential zombies. What non-materialist physicalism doesn't do is claim we're universal quantum computers (we’re not!). Nor - or at least, not without a lot more work - does non-materialist physicalism lay out a well-defined list of problems too difficult for programmable digital zombies to solve. Consider an example. If, on the African savannah, one experiences within one's world-simulation a pride hungry of lions advancing and flees to safety, then one has potentially a huge computational-functional advantage over a notional micro-experiential zombie - such as a sleeping tribesman. But this functional advantage doesn't mean that a futuristic silicon humanoid robot couldn’t be programmed to behave just as adaptively in such a threatening situation. The obstacles are daunting, but I assume that a well-designed, well-programmed micro-experiential zombie could escape the lions too. This classical workaround simply wasn't an option available to natural selection to harness. Until we better understand the upper bounds to zombie intelligence, my claim is more cautious. There is a vast range of cognitive tasks that a classical digital zombie can't do except by programming the physical construction a system with a different architecture. By their very nature, classical digital zombies can't investigate the nature and varieties of phenomenally-bound experience. Their ignorance is hardwired. There aren't any workarounds for such ignorance - short of programming the digital zombie to design systems of a physically different, sentience-friendly architecture.
Dustin, forgive me for just quoting below from the recent Magnus interview. But if I'm right, then our awake mind-brains can't be considered as effectively classical systems. Their apparent classicality as suggested by modern neuroscanning is an artefact of our temporally coarse-grained tools of investigation. If a perfect structural match exists, as physicalism demands, then it's at the sub-femtosecond regime.
I sometimes say who will play Mendel to Zurek's Darwin is unknown. If experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, i.e. if non-materialist physicalism is true, then we must necessarily consider the nature of experience at what are intuitively absurdly short timescales in the CNS. At sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, we can't just assume the existence of decohered macromolecules, neurotransmitters, receptors, membrane-bound neurons etc. - they are weakly emergent, dynamically stable patterns of "cat states". These high-level patterns must be derived from quantum bedrock - which of course I haven't done. All I've done is make a "philosophical" conjecture that (1) quantum coherence mediates the phenomenal unity of our minds; and (2) quantum Darwinism (cf. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/09/twist-survival-fittest-could-explain-how-reality-emerges-quantum-haze) offers a ludicrously powerful selection-mechanism for sculpting what would otherwise be mere phenomenally-bound "noise".
Dustin, yes. Exactly the same paper contains Tegmark's frustratingly brisk, two-paragraph dismissal of the binding problem - section 3. Tegmark focuses on dynamical timescales. Whether we consider a stream of logico-linguistic thought-episodes, perceptual updates to our world-simulations, or neuronal spiking frequencies, the relevant timescale is scores or hundreds of milliseconds. By contrast, decoherence means the theoretical effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions is less than femtoseconds. Case closed?
Tegmark assumes so.
But no. Recall the intrinsic nature argument isn't a proposal about dynamical timescales. Rather, it purports to solve the Hard Problem by proposing that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
The implausibility of the intrinsic nature argument and panpsychism in general is normally supposed to derive from size: an electron field, for instance, seems the wrong candidate for the minimal "psychon” consciousness - electrons are intuitively too small and simple. But _if_ experience discloses the essence of the physical, then the nature of physical experience at sub-femtosecond resolutions must be considered too – and it’s not classical mind-dust! Individual superpositions (of neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, colour-mediating neurons (etc) have precisely the (classically impossible) ontological unity needed to dissolve the binding problem. My best guess is that interferometry will reveal a perfect structural match. Binding via synchrony – a mere restatement of the binding problem - is really binding by superposition:
The Measurement Problem
William James' "mind-dust" argument needs updating for the digital age. Yes, I understand the reasoning behind claims for digital minds. Our phenomenally-bound consciousness (somehow) arises from brains. It's commonly believed anything that brains can do can be done by a classical Turing machine. Turing machines are substrate-neutral - the multiple-realisability assumption. Therefore consciousness is presumably substrate-neutral too.
(1) the substrate-neutrality of consciousness
2) the substrate-neutrality of phenomenal binding
are two separate theses.
Let's assume physicalism in the broadest sense - including constitutive panpsychism / non-materialist physicalism. If we were notionally to replace the 1s and 0s of a classical Turing machine with discrete pixels of micro-experience and execute the code, then the program would run as before - and the upshot of running the program still wouldn’t be a subject of experience, but just a micro-experiential zombie. Speed of execution or complexity of code make no difference to the outcome. Proponents of digital sentience - and hence the Simulation Hypothesis - are implicitly invoking some kind of unexplained "strong" emergence. It's unphysicalist. Therefore I'm unconvinced.
Maybe if phenomenal binding were a trivial implementation detail of our minds, then it might be tempting to set the binding/combination problem aside. But phenomenal binding is a ubiquitous and insanely adaptive feature of biological consciousness. Yes, digital workarounds are sometimes possible. But IMO all kinds of cognitive tasks will forever defeat classical digital zombies - from exploring psychedelia, the nature of the self and indexical thought to investigating the existence, varieties, binding and causal efficacy of consciousness. By way of a response, perhaps one could argue that the Church-Turing thesis is nonetheless true because programmable digital computers can still be programmed to create organisms with a radically different architecture from classical Turing machines, namely biological animal life with our ability to support classically-impossible phenomenal binding. But as far as I can tell, classical Turing machines themselves will always remain (micro-experiential) zombies.
So phenomenal minds like us can know that we are living in god-forsaken basement reality (cf. Quantum Mind).
[on travel in twenties]
1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12
David Pearce (2021)
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers 2015-21
Social Network Postings (2021)