May 14, 2007

Sentient Developments Retrospective: Part I

This week marks the 5th anniversary of Sentient Developments. Over the next several days I will be reflecting on some of my favourite posts from the past 5 years (note: these hi-lites won't include my Transitory Human columns written for Betterhumans; that's a different retrospective altogether).

Quantum Consciousness and Telepathy?

Back in August of 2002 I began to dabble in quantum consciousness theory and the treacherous realms of parapsychology. It was during this time that I became fairly convinced that something like telepathy actually exists (a claim I now tend to be more wary of). I was fairly convinced that the interplay between consciousness and quantum effects had something to do with it. I wrote the following,
My consciousness is tied to both the physical and quantum realms. As I observe and measure the universe, it falls perfectly into place just for me (i.e. the observer forces the collapse of the wave function). The same thing happens to you, independent of my observations. We are all living in our own 'worlds,' and these 'worlds' are being revealed only to the specific observer; our personal-worlds are only as large as our observational field, and anything not observed is in a state of indeterminancy. For example, if we have a face to face conversation, everything behind me in my 'world' is in a state of unobserved indeterminancy, so it's not really there. But in your personal-universe, because you're looking at me and the world behind me, it has collapsed into a perceptually coherent world. Yet, I can interact with you. When we communicate, we are truly interfacing, but it only appears that we are in the same physical environment (or world). Thus, even though we can interact in the same room together, we are actually in our own physical worlds. So, the physical world is an illusion of sorts, or at the very least, it is one of our two environments. The other place we reside is the quantum dimension. Thus, by virtue of the fact that we can communicate and interact in the physical world (our interaction is not an illusion), our consciousness must be linked in the quantum environment...

...One way of looking at it is that a consciousness has tunneled through the quantum maze to get to another consciousness. It has tuned into the proper frequency.
I was so excited about this revelation that I contacted quantum mind theorist Stuart Hameroff and asked him about it. He responded by informing me that at the Quantum Mind Conference in 2003 there would be "compelling" evidence in favour of "telepathy."

These days, while I'm not so much interested in the parapsychological aspects of quantum consciousness, I am still very much intrigued by notions of consciousness and how it relates to reality, as well as such philosophical propositions as panprotopsychism.

The TTA rails against Kass, Raelians

In late 2002 the newly founded Toronto Transhumanist Association began to express itself as an activist organization. Leon Kass, chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics at the time, was scheduled to speak at the University of Toronto in December 2002.

Kass, a notorious bioconservative and so-called deathist, was bad news as far as we were concerned. We used his Toronto visit as an opportunity to declare that 'Bush Bioethicist Thinks Canadians Should Die.' We issued a statement to the press to this effect. Here's an excerpt,
What’s worse, while claiming to be a defender of human dignity, Kass has essentially declared that not all people are equal when it comes to the care they can come to expect. “Kass represents an affront to the rights of the elderly,” says TTA vice-president George Dvorsky. “The aging Baby Boomer population needs to take heed of this man and his stance against progressive health technologies, particularly as they apply to medical practices that can extend life and the treatment of suffering and aging itself. Kass is trying to convince all elderly people that they should complacently accept and deal with all aging-related diseases and simply shut up and die. As a result, he has not only revealed a discriminatory stance that targets the elderly and the kind of care they are legally entitled to, but he has also exposed his pro-death agenda.”
One month later the Raelian cult announced the birth of a human clone. This proved to be a hoax, but we didn't know it at the time. Concerned that the Raelians would give transhumanists a bad name, the TTA issued a statement in condemnation of the experiment. We stated that,
In their haste to produce the first human clone, the Raelians and their renegade Clonaid biologists exposed babies to these sorts of risks. Yes, critics should be directing their disgust at the Raelians and the maverick scientists who helped them clone a human before the procedure was safe. But they should be careful about saying that all scientists and ethicists are against reproductive cloning, or that the act itself is evil.
At the same time, we wanted to re-frame the prospect of human cloning in a positive light,
“Human cloning will someday be a good thing,” says TTA vice-president George Dvorsky. “For infertile couples who cannot make babies with sperm and eggs, cloning is a medical breakthrough that will provide them children of their own. Similarly, it will help gay and lesbian couples produce genetically related offspring. And for those individuals with inheritable genetic diseases, reproductive cloning will give them an increased chance of having a healthy child."

“Transhumanists believe that humans deserve the right to clone themselves should they choose, so long as the process isn’t harmful to others," says Dvorsky. "It is hard to imagine parents of clones being any less loving and caring than parents of regular children. Clones are nothing more than delayed twins, and are just as human and as deserving of rights and respect as anyone.”
Measuring Scientific Progress

When attending TransVision 2003 at Yale University I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Vassar. We immediately hit it off and have continued to correspond since that time.

One of the projects we embarked upon was to test the assertion that breakthroughs in science were continuing to happen at a steady, if not accelerating, pace. We both felt that major scientific progress was actually slowing down despite the rapid rate of technological progress.

To test the theory we created a list of humanity's most important scientific breakthroughs and noted how much time had elapsed since each development:

  • Advent of religion as primitive metaphysics (100,000 to 45,000 years ago)
  • Meditation Pantojoli, Forest Vedas (1000 BC)
  • Advent of science in Ancient Greece (350 BC)
  • Arabic Mathematics (800 AD)
  • Revival of Ptolemaic Astronomy (early 1500s)
  • Copernican Astronomy/Heliocentrism (1543)
  • Advent of Mechanistic Dynamics (17th century)
  • Statistics & Probability Bayes, Pascal, Fermat, etc. (17th century)
  • Calculus Huygens, Newton & Leibniz (late 17th century)
  • Newtonian Dynamics (1680s)
  • Optics Newton, etc. (1680s)
  • Idea of Progress/Enlightenment (18th century)
  • Thermodynamics (early 19th century)
  • Biochemistry (early 19th century)
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, Riemann, etc. (early 19th century)
  • Electro-Magnetic Induction Faraday (1821)
  • Natural Selection Darwin (1858)
  • Geological Uniformitarianism (mid to late 19th century)
  • Mendelian Inheritance (1866)
  • Maxwell's Equations (1884)
  • Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements (mid to late 19th century)
  • Microeconomics (mid to late 19th century)
  • Germ Theory of Disease Pasteur (late 19th century)
  • Advent of Speculative Science Fiction, Futurology (late 19th century)
  • Unification of Chemistry and Physics (late 19th, early 20th century)
  • Experimental Psychology (early 20th century)
  • Undecidability (early 20th century)
  • Einsteinian Relativity (1905)
  • Quantum Physics (1909) Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger
  • Universal Computing Turing, Gödel, Hilbert (1928)
  • Advent of Cosmology (early to mid 20th century)
  • Idea of force carrier Einstein, Bose, Higgs (mid 20th century)
  • Standard Model of Particle Physics (mid to late 20th century)
  • Neo-Darwinian synthesis with Mendelian Genetics Williams, Dawkins, etc. (mid to late 20th century)
  • Chaos Theory or Complex Systems Theory (1960s)
  • Memetics/Semiotics Dawkins, Eco (1970s)
  • Sociobiology Wilson (1970s)
Based on this list we concluded that science had experienced a 'golden age' of sorts from the 17th through to the 19th century, and that major breakthroughs were becoming less and less frequent.

Conversation with John Smart

I had an excellent conversation with John Smart back in July 2003 where we discussed the developmental Singularity:
GD: "The system you describe cannot be a perfectly deterministic system - any evolved system needs at least some dynamism built in to it to guarantee a certain degree of mutatability. Therefore, nothing is "guaranteed" in this universe, nor any universe for that matter, especially if one wants to introduce the infinite spectra of variable quantum worlds and multiverses."

JS: "Certainly. An 'evolutionary developmental' system (see for more on that concept, or put this word into any biological textbook search) is not perfectly deterministic. It is developmentally (not evolutionarily), highly statistically determined however, in standard development environments. And I don't need to tell you this looks like a very standard development environment."

GD: "Obviously, if you're right, intelligences (like ourselves right now) become self-aware of their deterministic drive towards a developmental singularity. Thus, one could argue that the drive to the singularity may be a conscious one, or even a self-directed one."

JS: "Yes, yes. Rationality being the latest emergent tool for searching the evolutionary phase space, etc. Kind of an interesting and humbling realization, isn't it? Certainly keeps reductionist materialist and rationalist philosophers from sleeping too soundly at night, I'd bet."

GD: "Aren't you really applying the same kind of pre-Copernican human-centric arrogance to assume that we're special? How are we less epiphenomenon than ants or other cosmic phenomenon?"

JS: "This perspective isn't anthropomorphic, its infopomorphic, as you point out below. Either the universe is a very efficient massively parallel evolutionary developmental learning system, or there's something major wrong with the model."
More from this conversation here.

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