April 30, 2009

Guest blogger David Pearce answers your questions (part 3)

David Pearce is guest blogging this week.

Michael Kirkland alleges that the abolitionist project violates the Golden Rule.

Maybe. But recall J.S. Mill: “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete sprit of the ethics of utility.” The abolitionist project, and indeed superhappiness on a cosmic scale, follows straightforwardly from application of the principle of utility in a postgenomic era. Yes, there are problems in interpreting an ethic of reciprocity in the case of non-human animals, small children, and the severely mentally handicapped. But the pleasure-pain axis seems to be common to the vertebrate line and beyond.

Michael also believes that my ideas about predators are "monstrous" and "genocidal".

OK, here is a thought-experiment. Imagine if there were a Predator species that treated humans in the way cats treat mice. Let's assume that the Predator is sleek, beautiful, elegant, and is endowed with all the virtues we ascribe to cats. In common with cats, the Predator simply doesn't understand the implications of what it is doing when tormenting and killing us in virtue of its defective theory of mind. What are our policy options? We might decide to wipe out the race of Predators altogether - "genocide" so to speak - from the conviction that a race of baby-killers was no more valuable than the smallpox virus. Or alternatively, we might be more forgiving and tweak its genome, reprogramming the Predator so it no longer preyed on us (or anyone else). However, perhaps one group of traditionally-minded humans decide to protest against adopting even the second, "humane" option. Tweaking its genome so the Predator no longer preys on humans will destroy a vital part of its species essence, the ecological naturalists claim. Curbing its killer instincts would be "unnatural" and have dangerously unpredictable effects on a finely-balanced global ecosystem (etc). Perhaps a few extremists even favour a "rewilding" option in which the Predator should be reintroduced to human habitats where it is now extinct.

Should we take such an ethic seriously? I hope not.

Granted, the above analogy sounds fantastical. But the parallel isn't wholly far-fetched. If your child in Africa has just been mauled to death by a lion, you'll be less enthusiastic about the noble King Of The Beasts than a Western armchair wildlife enthusiast. A living world based around creatures eating each is barbaric; and later this century it's going to become optional. One reason we're not unduly troubled by the cruelties of Darwinian life is that our wildlife "documentaries" give a Disneyfied view of Nature, with their tasteful soundtracks and soothing commentary to match. Unlike on TV news, the commentator never says: "some of the pictures are too shocking to be shown here". But the reality is often grisly in ways that exceed our imagination.

In response to Leafy: Are cats that don't kill really "post-felines" - not really cats at all? Maybe not, but only in a benign sense. A similar relationship may hold between humans and the (post-)humans we are destined to become.

Carl worries that I might hold a "[David] Chalmers-style 'supernatural' account of consciousness".

We differ, but like Chalmers, I promise I am a scientific naturalist. The behaviour of the stuff of the world is exhaustively described by the universal Schrodinger equation (or its relativistic generalization). This rules out dualism (casual closure) or epiphenomenalism (epiphenomenal qualia would lack the causal efficacy to talk about their own existence). But theoretical physics is completely silent on the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world; physics describes only its formal structure. There is still the question of what "breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe", in Hawking's immortal phase; or alternatively, in John Wheeler's metaphor, "What makes the Universe fly?"

Of the remaining options, monistic idealism is desperately implausible and monistic materialism is demonstrably false (i.e. one isn't a zombie.) So IMO the naturalist must choose the desperately implausible option. See Galen Strawson [Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does physicalism entail panpsychism? (2006)] for a defence of an ontology he'd hitherto dismissed as "crazy"; and Oxford philosopher Michael Lockwood [Mind, Brain and the Quantum (1991)] on how one's own mind/brain gives one privileged access to the intrinsic nature of the "fire in the equations".

I think two distinct problems of consciousness need to be distinguished here. A solution to the second presupposes a solution to the first.

First, why does consciousness exist in the natural world at all? This question confronts the materialist with the insoluble "explanatory gap". But for the monistic idealist who thinks fields of microqualia are all that exist, this question is strictly equivalent to explaining why anything at all exists. Mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

Secondly, why is it that, say, an ant colony or the population of China or (I'd argue) a digital computer - with its classical serial architecture and "von Neumann bottleneck" - don't support a unitary consciousness beyond the aggregate consciousness of its individual constituents, whereas a hundred billion (apparently) discrete but functionally interconnected nerve cells of a waking/dreaming vertebrate CNS can generate a unitary experiential field? I'd argue that it's the functionally unique valence properties of the carbon atom that generate the macromolecular structures needed for unitary conscious mind from the primordial quantum minddust. No, I don't buy the Hameroff Penrose "Orch-OR" model of consciousness. But I do think Hameroff is right insofar as the mechanism of general anaesthesia offers a clue to the generation of unitary conscious mind via quantum coherence. The challenge is to show a) how ultra-rapid thermally-induced decoherence can be avoided in an environment as warm and noisy as the mind/brain; and 2) how to "read off" the values of our qualia from the values of the solutions of the quantum mechanical formalism.

Proverbially, the dominant technology of an age supplies it root metaphor of mind. Our dominant technology is the digital computer. IMO our next root metaphor is going to be the quantum computer - our new root metaphor both of conscious mind and the multiverse itself. But if your heart sinks when you read the title of any book - or blog post - containing the words "quantum" and "consciousness", then I promise mine does too.

David Pearce


Nato said...

I've never understood what the difference could possibly be between "two" functionally identical monisms. That is to say, I reject the dichotomy between idealist and materialist as question-beggingly dependent on post-theoretical conceptions of material and ideal. If the units of microqualia interact in a manner identical to units of matter, then they're the same thing. Physics is just a formalization of observed dynamics, after all, supposing nothing about (apparently-inaccessible) essence.

Similarly, Chalmers' four-step proof of the falsity of materialism (The Conscious Mind, p123) based on the putative logical possibility of phenomenal zombies falls apart on step two if one accepts any reductive account of consciousness as workable. Not proven, just workable. If consciousness is a dance instead of a dancer, i.e. something that 'materials' instantiate rather than constitute, then once we describe how something is done, we're finished with explanation. If a neurologist can exhaustively discover how it is that something seems to us the way it seems, she's not only shown (assuming she's correct, of course) that the 'qualia' are entirely functions of neurological interactions, but she's also shown that any time that same dynamic is present in someone's brain, they are veridically experiencing the qualia. It's logically impossible for something to have the same dynamic while leaving out experience, or consciousness, or whatever the psychological phenomenon is. I think we really confuse ourselves by insisting on the wrong kinds of explanations.

In a similar vein, I've always thought the main attraction of Penrose's solutions to the supposedly incalculable function of the mind were that they were extremely weird, and everyone knows consciousness is really weird. But the incredible frequency with which animals have approached consciousness makes me think that consciousness is weird like thermodynamics, not weird like a Calabi-Yau manifold. It seems the maths of the Universe keeps causing systems to develop protointelligences and even intelligences under rather different circumstances, because it's just a feature that information is useful.

Michael Kirkland said...

If we have the ability to much with the genomes of predators and replace them with something more to our liking, couldn't we much more easily provide them with stand in prey? Something that appears to be sentient, but is not? (Or do you object to video game violence too?)

Your ideas seem to me to necessarily preclude input from your victims. You argue for making fundamental changes to the nature of a being without its consent or even consultation. It's monstrous enough when applied to a single species, but this universal "abolitionist project" to preempt any future sapiences from evolving is mind boggling.

If some other species had done that to Earth a million years ago, there would be no homo sapiens to consider the idea

James Evans said...

Hi Michael,

The methods employed by evolution also precluded input from its victims. This universal "blind selection" method which arbitrarily creates minds which undergo immense suffering is mind boggling.

ZarPaulus said...

I see a very obvious problem with an ecosystem that lacks predators, it would depend on highly advanced technology and there seems to be a direct relationship between how new a technology is and it's odds of catastrophic failure. All organisms are essentially Von Neuman machines, they seek to consume all available resources and replicate as much as possible. In the natural world there are two major limiting factors that prevent populations from increasing so high that the environment can't support them, predators and limited prey. Humans are capable of imposing limits on our population growth through means of our sapience and technology, but once the Industrial Revolution began and our natural limits began to disappear our world population doubled within a century, and in the century after that went from 2 billion to over 6 billion. An ecosystem without suffering would not only require every organism with even rudimentary nerves to be sapient but also require massive cultivation to support them, effective methods of birth control, and probably space travel. Of course you could upload everyone into a virtual universe but what happens if it crashes.