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philosophysics comments on Welcome to Less Wrong! (2012) - Less Wrong

25 Post author: orthonormal 26 December 2011 10:57PM

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Comment author: [deleted] 11 August 2012 04:54:04AM *  8 points [-]


I am a nearly seventeen year old female in the US who was linked by a friend to The Quantum Physics Series on LessWrong after trying to understand whether or not determinism is /actually/ refuted by Quantum Mechanics. I am an atheist, I suppose.

This all began as a fascination with science because I thought it would permit me to attain ultimate knowledge, or ultimate understanding and thus control of "matter". Later, I became fascinated with nihilism and philosophy, in search of defining "objectivity". It took off from there and now I am currently concerned with consciousness and usage of artificial intelligence to transfer our biological intelligence to a more effective physical manifestation.

I'm a little scared, naturally, because I think this would change a lot of what we currently understand as humans. As Mitchell Heisman describes, there exists a relationship between the scientist and the science. If the scientist is changed, I would think that the science, or knowledge, would in itself change. Some questions I have ATM: "Does objectivity exist? Can it be created? Can the notion or belief or idea of objectivity be destroyed? Will intelligence become disinterested in the ideas we are currently interested in and live in a universe free from these ideas and knowledge; can it perhaps eliminate knowledge rather than be ignorant of it? Will objectivity become so irrelevant as to not exist (as a possibility in our think-space)?"

So, I wonder, why, if so, is immortality more valuable than mortality?

I enjoy thinking about things, discovering new thoughts. I still have a lot of factual refining to do and I'm actively searching for resources to help me accomplish this. Thus I find myself here on lesswrong.org.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 11 August 2012 07:03:48AM 1 point [-]

Hello. I think you are the first person I've ever seen cite Mitchell Heisman as if he was just another thinker, rather than a weird guy who forced his ideas upon the attention of the world by committing suicide.

You're interested in the concept of "objectivity". It's certainly a crossroads concept where many issues meet. Maybe the major irony in the opposition between "objectivity" and "subjectivity" is that objectivity is a form of subjectivity! Here subjectivity is more or less a synonym for consciousness, and a subjectivity is a sensibility or a mindset: a state of mind in which the world is experienced and judged in a particular way.

Consciousness is a relation between an experiencing subject and an experienced object, and objectivity is consciousness trying to banish from its perceptions (or cognitions) of the experienced object, any influences which arise from the experiencing subject. In a lot of modern scientific and philosophical thought, this has been taken to the extreme of even trying to escape the existence of an experiencing subject.

Trying to catalogue and diagnose all the ways in which this happens would be a mammoth task, but one extreme form of the syndrome would be where the "scientific subject" achieves perfect unconsciousness of self, and exists in a subjective world that seems purely objective. That is, they would have a belief system that nothing exists but atoms (for example), and not only would they find a way to interpret everything they experience as "nothing but atoms", but they would also manage to avoid noticing their own mental processes in a way that would disturb this perception, by reminding them of their own existence.

A more moderate state of mind would be one in which self-awareness is allowed, but isn't threatening because the thinker has some way of interpreting their thoughts, and their thoughts about their thoughts, as also being nothing but atoms. For example, the brain is a computer, and a thought is a computation, and the computation has a "feeling" about it, and consciousness is made up of those feelings. A set of beliefs like that would be far more characteristic of the average materialist, than the previous extreme case, and it's also likely to be healthier, because the evidence of the self's existence isn't being repressed, it's just being interpreted to make it consistent with the belief in atomism.

The phenomenon of a personal existential crisis arising from equating objectivity with nihilism via "life has no objective meaning", is not something I remember ever experiencing, and I can't identify with it much. I can understand people despairing of life because it's bad for them and it won't stop, or even just doubting its value because their hopes have burned away, so it's not bad but it's not good either, it's just empty. But apparently I was never one of those people who thought life wouldn't be worth living if I couldn't find an objective morality or an objective meaning or an objective reason for living. This outlook seems to be a little correlated with people who were raised religious and then became atheists (I was raised as an agnostic), and I would think that sometimes the feeling of meaninglessness is more personal in origin than the one who experiences it realizes. In the religious case, for example, one may suppose that they felt personally uplifted back when they thought that reality had a purpose and this purpose included eternal life for human beings; so it may seem that the problem is one of there being "no objective purpose", but really the problem has more to do with the change in their personal ontological status.

I mention this because I think that there are "existential disorders" experienced by modern people which also have their origin in the belief in a scientific universe that doesn't contain subjects or subjectivity. Again, the forms are multitudinous and depend on what science is thought to be saying at the time. People having a crisis over epiphenomenalism are different from people having a crisis over "all possible things happen in the quantum multiverse". You don't say you're having a crisis, but there's a disturbing dimension to some of what you think about, and I would bet that it arises from another aspect of the attempt to "be objective" when "objectivity" seems to imply that you don't or can't exist, don't have any personal agency, or wherever it is that the scientific outlook seems to contradict experience.

I have been promoting phenomenological philosophy in discussions elsewhere, and phenomenology really is all about being objective about subjectivity. In other words, one is not taking one's consciousness and purging all evidence of its subjective side, just in order to be consistent with an imagined picture of reality. It's more like how western culture imagines Buddhism to be: you attend to your thoughts and feelings as they arise, you do not repress them and you do not embrace them. But the goals of phenomenology and of Buddhism are a little different - Buddhism is ultimately about personal salvation, removing oneself from the world of suffering by allowing attachments to reveal their futility; whereas phenomenology is more purely scientific in spirit, it's an attempt just to conceive the nature of consciousness correctly and objectively.

You mention artificial intelligence and possibly mind uploading. These days, the standard view of how the mind fits into nature is the computational one - the mind is a program running in the brain - with a bit of stealthy dualism allowing people to then think of their experiences as accompanying these computations; this is how the "moderate materialist", in my earlier description, thinks. Naturally, people go on from this to suppose that the same program running on a different computer would still be conscious, and thus we get the subculture of people interested in mind uploading.

Long ago I carried out my own investigations into phenomenology and physics, and came to disbelieve in this sort of materialist dualism. The best alternative I found came from entanglement in quantum theory. With entanglement, you have a single complicated wavefunction guiding two or more particles that can't be split into a set of simpler wavefunctions, one for each particle. (When the joint wavefunction can be split in this way, it's called "factorizable", it factorizes into the simpler wavefunctions.) There is some uncertainty about the reality implied by the equations of quantum mechanics, to say the least. One class of interpretations explains entanglement by saying that there are "N" different objects, the particles, and they just interact to produce the correlations. But another class of interpretations say that when you have entanglement, there's only one thing there, though it may be "present" in "N" different places.

My best idea about how consciousness works is that, first of all, it is the property of a single thing, a big entangled object in the sense of the second interpretation. Refining that hypothesis to make it detailed and testable is a long task, but I can immediately observe that it is in contradiction to the usual idea of mind uploading, according to which your mind is physically a large number of distinct parts, and it can be transferred from one place to another by piecemeal substitution of parts, or even just by creating a wholly new set of parts and making it behave like the old set. If a conscious mind is necessarily a single physical thing, all you can do is just move it around, you can't play the game of substituting transistors for neurons one at a time. (Well, if the "single physical thing" was a big bundle of entangled electrons, and neurons and transistors just host some of that bundle, then maybe you could. But the usual materialist conception of the mind, at work in this thought experiment of substitution, is that the mind is made of the neurons.)

I'm already notorious on LW for pushing phenomenology and this monadic idea of mind, and for scorning the usual approach as crypto-dualist, so I won't belabor the point. But it seems important that you should know there are radical conceptual alternatives, if you're engaged in these enjoyable-yet-scary meditations on the future of intelligence. The possibilities are not restricted just to the ideas you will find readymade in existing futurist discourse.