In Search of Reality – Trust the Maths

This is my second article related to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #124, a discussion with physicist Sean Carroll, about reality, physics, freewill, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. In this article I want to critically examine the tendency among physicists these days to base their understanding of reality on mathematical models they construct about that reality.

 

The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

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The many worlds interpretation, first suggested by Hugh Everett in 1957, is an attempt to make some sense of the quantum mechanical assertion that unmeasured, or unobserved, quantum systems don’t actually exist in any particular state. Rather, they exist in multiple possible states at the same time and it is only once the system is measured, or observed, that one of those possibilities becomes actual. The many worlds interpretation holds that, at the moment of measurement, rather than one of these possibilities becoming actual, the universe splits into multiple branches, so that each possibility actually actualises, just in different universes.

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In Search of Reality – It’s all just Particles

The two topics I discuss in this article, downward causation and panpsychism, both come from Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #124 in which he sits down with physicist Sean Carroll to discuss… well, reality. Rather than working through these ideas in any detail, what I will mainly do is respond to Carroll’s criticism of them as “…attempts to wriggle around basing reality in stuff obeying the laws of physics [which] don’t quite hold together”.[1]

 

Downward Causation

Early on in the podcast, Carroll brings up downward causation, which is the idea that activity at a macroscopic level can somehow feed back and affect behaviour at the microscopic level in a way you wouldn’t understand if you were only studying the microscopic. With this, he is taking aim at the idea that consciousness can affect any of the ‘real’ physical constituents and processes from which it emerges. Now, if you start with the idea that the ‘real’ is the world as described by physics, which, by definition, means elementary particles and the physical laws that govern their behaviour, then Carroll is obviously right. But is this apparently reasonable claim as reasonable as it seems?

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A Case Study in Personal Identity: Altered Carbon

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Altered Carbon is a 2003 science fiction novel written by Richard K. Morgan, which has recently been made into a gritty, futuristic, and definitely R-18 TV series. The central plot device revolves around pieces of technology called ‘cortical stacks’. They are small, palm-sized devices that are implanted at the top of the spinal column and function as digital receptacles for the human consciousness. When you die, as long as your ‘stack’ isn’t damaged, you can be brought back to life by having your consciousness downloaded from your cortical stack into the cortical stack of another body (called a ‘sleeve’), which can be either a real human body or a synthetic, grown one. This transferral process is called ‘needlecasting’ and usually involves deleting the consciousness in the first stack before making the transfer. In this way, the super-rich (called ‘meths’, a reference to the long-lived Methuselah of Biblical fame) have allegedly achieved immortality. In this article, I want to investigate this assumption by asking, are you the same person after needlecasting as you were before?

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Psychedelics – The Self and the Real

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This article is about Sam Harris’ 127th Waking Up podcast in which he talks with Michael Pollan about his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, a New York Times bestseller that investigates the revolution now taking place regarding psychedelic drugs. On the podcast, Harris and Pollan discuss the psychological benefits of psychedelic drug use for those suffering from conditions like depression, addiction, etc., and the general benefits of its use for otherwise healthy people.

Note: I haven’t read the book, so my comments are restricted to what is discussed on the podcast. I also won’t be discussing potential societal/health problems regarding making psychedelics legally available to the public.

 

The Claims

Claim 1: The main benefit Pollan and Harris focused on regarding the use of psychedelics among otherwise healthy people was their ability to distance one from the (illusory) self. Pollan talks about the drugs dissolving his sense of self, which was freeing in the sense that it gave him an alternative “way to be”, another way to react to what happens in his life. He realised he doesn’t have to listen to his ego all the time. Of course, being an experience, it fades with time and, as he recounts, shortly afterwards, his ego was back in full force. Nevertheless, the alleged benefit was that it had given him a glimpse of another way to live, a way that can be developed more robustly through meditation.

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Reality Checking AI (5/5) – Safety and Digital Gods

Safety

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The central issue underlying all this talk of the potential dangers of artificial intelligence is safety. We don’t want to ‘accidentally’ create something that will have disastrous consequences; consequences which could perhaps have been foreseen and avoided had we been a little more conscientious.

This is one issue about which I largely agree with the prophets of the singularity. No one can know for certain that the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence that will make us look as intellectually insignificant as ants look to us, is zero. We might disagree on what that number is, but we should all be able to agree that it is at least above zero and less than one hundred (per cent). Given this, we have an obligation to advance with caution.

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Reality Checking AI (4/5) – The Control Problem and Self-Replication

The Control Problem

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The control problem refers to the difficulties inherent in maintaining control over a super-intelligent AI. The argument is that if we create an artificial super-intelligence and it becomes completely independent, it might enslave, or even destroy, us. Purveyors of AI doomsday scenarios seem to take a perverse delight in imagining how an AI might escape our control and cause havoc.

One obvious scenario is for a computer program to just go completely rogue and turn on us, its intellectually inferior creators. This fear gets its justification from nothing less than human history. What has happened whenever a more advanced race has encountered a less advanced one? Best case scenarios tend to slavery, worst case scenarios look more like genocide.

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Reality Checking AI (3/5) – Consciousness

For the purposes of this article, I will define consciousness as the subjective experience that somehow accompanies human cognition – that sense of self-awareness or the feeling that it is like something to be me.

Is Artificial Consciousness Necessary for AI to Pose a Threat?

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To his credit, Sam Harris, in his podcast discussion with Max Tegmark, acknowledges that consciousness is the only thing that provides meaning in the universe (although he also denies there is such thing as a self and believes we are all fully determined; so square all of those ideas if you can) but is of the opinion that it is irrelevant concerning AI[1] because an artificial super-intelligence can still destroy the human race, even if it completely lacks consciousness; that is, even if it is incapable of subjective experiences. As Tegmark puts it, if you’re being chased by a heat-seeking missile, you aren’t going to care whether it is experiencing anything or not. The end result will be the same either way.

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