The two topics I discuss in this article, downward causation and panpsychism, both come from Sam Harris’ Waking Uppodcast #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”.
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?
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?
Think back to when you were ten years old. Was that child you? Bear in mind that not only is virtually nothing physical about you the same now as it was then, you almost certainly have completely different preferences, beliefs, attitudes, goals, thoughts… even your personality will have changed. If that child was you, the same person you are now, what is it that accounts for this continuity in identity?
17th century English philosopher John Locke addresses this problem in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He starts with an atom and declares that it is the “same with itself” at any instant of its existence. Although we now know that atoms aren’t fundamental particles, Locke would certainly have been referring to an irreducible, unchanging, fundamental particle of nature. Nowadays, we would reserve this title for quarks and electrons. Perhaps it would be better if we paraphrase Locke and say that a fundamental particle is the “same with itself” at any instant of its existence. Identity, at the level of fundamental particles, coincides with physical existence. The fact of existence ensures continuity of identity.
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.
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.
Sartre, in the opening chapter of his very challenging read, Being and Nothingness, cleaves existence neatly in two; what he calls being-for-itself and being-in-itself.
The in-itself is being. I don’t recall Sartre ever explicitly describing it as physical matter, but that is basically what it amounts to. The in-itself is characterised by three features: 1) it is in-itself, 2) it is what it is, and 3) it is. Respectively, these mean: 1) the in-itself is independent; i.e. it doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, 2) it doesn’t refer to itself; i.e. it isn’t self-reflexive, and 3) it is neither possible nor necessary. It isn’t necessary because it didn’t have to be, but neither is it possible because inert, non-conscious matter has no possibilities.
The for-itself, on the other hand, is consciousness. What does this mean? Consciousness is precisely not being. It is an empty, ‘massless’perspective on, or relation to, being. The for-itself cannot be grasped because it is not a being, it’s not a thing, it is precisely no-thing… which is not the same as saying it is an illusion or that it doesn’t exist at all. If you find this scientifically implausible, I challenge you to describe consciousness in a way that preserves what conscious clearly is, all while staying within the confines of naturalistic materialism.
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?
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 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.
So, for this article, I’m assuming that you have read Sam Harris’ book, Freewill. If you haven’t, it’s very short, more essay than book, and well worth a read because it raises some interesting points that any proponent of freewill needs to address sooner or later. In lieu of this, you could read my previous article which briefly outlines what I took to be his main ideas.
Somewhat surprisingly, I agree with much of what Harris says… if we assume determinism to be true; specifically, what he has to say about fatalism, quantum indeterminacy, compatibilism and moral responsibility. All of the above are often given as reasons for resisting determinism and Harris, quite correctly in my opinion, rejects them in this capacity. Continue reading →