This article was inspired by Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #120 in which he talks with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (whom I’d never heard speak before but who was very impressive) and physicist Max Tegmark about the different ways science and philosophy approach reality. While I obviously recommend the podcast itself and although I constantly refer to Goldstein and Tegmark throughout, if you don’t have the time or inclination, it isn’t necessary to have listened to the podcast in order to follow what I discuss in the article.
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
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.
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”.
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?
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.
[This is a revised version of an article I wrote a few months ago and posted here. The changes were made after I read a rebuttal of it written by Francois Tremblay here. Despite the considerable revisions (particularly in the ‘Refutation’ section), my amendments don’t alter my original argument, which I think remains unchanged, but were necessary to clear up a few ambiguities and clarify certain points. I have noted my changes in blue]
I recently listened to a podcast on Sam Harris’ website in which he discusses anti-natalism (the view that it is morally wrong to have children) with David Benatar. You can find the podcast here. The core of Benatar’s argument rests on what he calls axiological asymmetry, a concept much easier to explain than the name might at first suggest. In this article, I will outline axiological asymmetry but argue that it doesn’t lead to anti-natalism.
Axiology is nothing more than the study of value so axiological asymmetry refers to an asymmetry in our values. Specifically, Benatar argues the following:
It is uncontroversial to say that
1) The presence of pain is bad
2) The presence of pleasure is good
However, such symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me [that is, Benatar] as true that
3) The absence of pain is good even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone,
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom that absence is a deprivation.
Since (3), then the absence of pain associated with any currently unconceived child must be accorded good. Since (4), then the absence of pleasure associated with any currently unconceived child must not be bad. The conclusion is that it is better not to conceive any child.
The Control Problem
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.
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.