March Fourth – on March 4th for Science and the Future!
A discussion on science advocacy & the future! David discussed how to think about strategic foresight (because it was kind of Future Day being March fourth) and science advocacy (especially in relation to the global science march). We also covered the kinds of social systems and attractor states – what we can do to wittingly steer away from a return to feudalism – and hopefully towards a brighter future.
Points Covered in the Interview:
– David Brin’s futurist advisory role at NASA
– Future Day – paying close attention to the future (especially politics)
– Self Preventing Prophecies (not fulfilling) http://www.davidbrin.com/nonfiction/tomorrowsworld.html
– AI and other dangers
– Our feudalistic history, likely a strong ‘attractor state’ – and how to get unstuck from feudalism
– Feudalism as one of the 110 explanations for the Fermi Paradox
– Athenian Democracy – and it being toppled by feudalism – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athenian_democracy
– The March for Science
— David Brin (@DavidBrin) March 1, 2017
p.s. Future Day is sometimes celebrated on the 1st of March, sometimes on the 4th (‘March Fourth…’ get it??), and sometimes for the whole month.
— David Brin (@DavidBrin) February 27, 2017
David Brin earned a Master of Science in applied physics in and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in space science. He currently serves on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group. He has also been a participant in discussions at the Philanthropy Roundtable and other groups seeking innovative problem solving approaches.
He has won numerous awards for his science fiction – one of his novels, The Postman, was turned into a motion picture.
“The March for Science is a celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists, and the incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.
ON APRIL 22, 2017, WE WALK OUT OF THE LAB AND INTO THE STREETS.
We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.
Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels – from local schools to federal agencies – throughout the world.”
Many thanks for watching!
– Science, Technology & the Future: http://scifuture.org
Recent video interview with John Wilkins!
- What should marchers for science advocate for (if anything)? Which way would you try to bias the economy of attention to science?
- Should scientists (as individuals) be advocates for particular causes – and should the scientific enterprise advocate for particular causes?
- The popular hashtag #AlternativeFacts and Epistemic Relativism – How about an #AlternativeHypotheses hashtag (#AltHype for short 😀 ?)
- Some scientists have concerns for being involved directly – other scientists say they should have a voice and be heard on issues that matter and stand up and complain when public policy is based on erroneous logic and/or faulty assumptions, bad science. What’s your view? What are the risks?
John Wilkins is a historian and philosopher of science, especially biology. Apple tragic. Pratchett fan. Curmudgeon.
We will cover scientific realism vs structuralism in another video in the near future!
Topics will include:
- Scientific Realism vs Scientific Structuralism (or Structuralism for short)
- Ontic (OSR) vs Epistemic (ESR)
- Does the claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the world trivialize scientific knowledge? (Epistemic Structural Realism and Ontic Structural Realism)
- If we are in principle happy to accept scientific models (especially those that have graduated form hypothesis to theory) as structurally real – then does this give us reasons never to be overconfident about our assumptions?
Come to the Science March in Melbourne on April 22nd 2017 – bring your friends too 😀
Adam Ford: G’day everybody – we’ve got Michael Shermer here today and we’re going to discuss science advocacy as well as the up and coming ‘March for Science’ which is happening on the 22nd of April. And I’m helping out with the Melbourne March for Science here in Australia.
Michael is in California. Michael is an American science writer, a historian of science and is the founder of the Skeptics Society – which I believe has about 55-60 thousand members at the moment – right?
Michael Shermer: That’s right yes. All over the world!
Adam Ford: He has largely devoted his time at the Skeptics Society investigating pseudoscience and super natural claims – and things that rub up against the scientific view of the world. Shermer has been well known for engaging in debate on the topic of pseudoscience and religion .. and emphasizes scientific skepticism – and a famous one I think was with you and Sam Harris a while ago with Deepak Chopra – I thought that was hilarious to watch.. it was very good on your part.
We met about a year ago at a Think Inc conference focusing on Transhumanism and the Singularity and Skepticism – it’s interesting that more recently Sam Harris has covered a lot of the AI stuff recently and become sort of a vocal advocate for cautionary development of artificial intelligence there – but we might cover that later.
But in terms of the March for Science, to begin with – it may not be obvious to everybody that there exists a connection… what relationship do you see between skepticism and science?
Michael Shermer: Well I think really they are one and the same – I mean most scientists are skeptics by nature; they doubt claims until there is evidence for it.. they start with the Null Hypothesis – that your claim is not true until proven otherwise. You know, and so, and skeptics have a deep interest in science – probably if there was overlapping venn diagrams the part that is not overlapping on the skeptics side is the fact that we take a deep interest in a lot of these fringe, marginalized, borderland type claims that most scientists don’t have time to deal with. (Sorry I have a barking dog here – his name is Hitch!)
You know skeptics deal with things like ESP and psychics and UFOs and alien abductions and these sorts of things that mainstream scientists don’t have time to deal with.. or things like creationism and holocaust denial, the anti-vaccination movement, you know ‘the birthers’, ‘the truthers’… these are all claims that are being made that should be challenged – facts should be checked, evidence should be evaluated. But scientists don’t have time to do that so that’s kind of our specialty – so you might think of it as a branch of science – it’s like people that study alternative medicine, most of them are doctors, but are doctors that specialize in this because most doctors don’t have time – you know they are just busy doing their own work and research – so you know our focus is on those areas.. and really its necessary; it’s important; it’s needed – because most scientists don’t know how to respond. And some scientists have tried to face-off with creationists (for example) – and they don’t fare well because they think all they need is the science – but that’s not enough; you need to know what the arguments are that the creationists are making; why are they making those arguments? what the context is, and how to respond to that particular argument – which is not just countering with the scientific data, it has to do with the type of argument that they are making and what they really after there.. so you have to kind of know that and now you know, skepticism has been around for decades (modern skepticism) and so skeptic magazine and there are a number of other skeptic magazines around the world and groups and conferences and so it’s a whole literature and tons of books, 100s of books specializing in topics – so we had a really good literature now of skepticism that brings value to science.
Adam Ford: Yeah – and there’s going to be a Science March – I think skeptics should come along and help support this! Now this is happening not only in Washington – but there are groups all over the world who are getting involved. And it seems as though it’s going to be quite large – in terms of how large science marches can get – it may be the largest one yet – we’ll see ok!
Yes so I’m just wondering – there’s been quite a lot of controversy in the media of what counts as real facts and what counts as knowledge that can be trusted, policies that can trusted – so when people are going to this march for science – what do you think they should be listening for? How can they get the most out of it and make it the best possible science march?
Michael Shermer: Well know one knows because we’ve never done done this before! There was a Reason Rally in Washington DC that I participated in – that’s more of an Atheism type march. This (the march for science) is pure science – it’s not an atheism thing; religion has nothing to do with it; we just love science – and I think it’s really more instead of what happens at the march – it’s the idea that people are interested in that, and they care about that – and passionately enough to send a signal to Washington and politicians and really everybody – that we live in an age of science! There’s nothing more important the scientific method for determining what’s true – and so in an age of #alternativeFacts and ‘fake news’ stories and that sort of thing, we need science more than ever! And yes we have to get past this idea of science as guys in lab coats with beakers or particle accelerators – you know I mean all of us should be reasoning scientifically – that is it’s science and reason, it’s logic, it’s critical thinking, it’s just evaluating any claim whether it’s made by a politician or an economist or a religious leader .. anybody – if it’s a factual claim, its fair game for skeptical evaluation by anyone. I would like to think that we live in an age of science – we are all scientists in a sense that we should all be training how to think scientifically.
Adam Ford: Certainly! Alan Adler who was one of the stars of M.A.S.H. going years back (I used to watch that when I was a kid) said like science is a meticulous expression of human curiosity – so in a sense like we innately we are “proto-scientists” you know – sticking things in our mouths, tasting them and trying out new things in the world – some of the theory of science is a little bit unintuitive though – and I don’t think we are natural born scientists in the extreme sense…
Michael Shermer: Ahh yeah – that’s true! A couple of things – I have a new born, so it’s been kind of fun watching little Vinnie run experiments (Adam: Congratulations!) Thankyou! He’s a cute little guy – but they put stuff in their mouths, they drop things , they pick things up, they’re touching things – what they are doing is – the theory of Alison Gopnik (the developmental psychologist) – is that they’re like little scientists running experiments. Okay if I pick this up and drop it, what does it do? Where does it go? It’s called ‘object permanence’ – they’re little scientists. They also intuit the way the world works – figuring out how gravity (and things like that) which does not always turn out to be right. So our intuitions about the world (for example) – if you go outside it looks like the sun is rising, the sun is setting – the stars are stars are rising, the stars are setting – you don’t feel the earth move, you see the sky move. It feels like the earth is flat and stationary – everything goes around it – well we know that’s wrong – but that’s an intuitive idea. Same thing with evolution – it’s not intuitive; you don’t see species change – what you see is species staying the same in a human lifetime. So, it’s an inferential science – you have to infer from the fossils, from DNA, and so on – that evolution happened over long stretches of time – but in terms of the way our minds work from out senses, it’s counter intuitive – same thing with most of quantum physics – a lot of the esoteric sciences, you know, they are counter-intuitive. So that does take effort and training and practice, schooling and so on – there is a reason you should get a degree in science – because we learn something about these things over the centuries.
Adam Ford: Not everybody has a degree in science, not everybody has the time or the inclination to go through a degree in science – how can people, without a very mature scientific understanding of the world – still combat things like ‘alternate facts’ – how can find a position to stand in where they are in a position to judge the veracity of ‘alternate facts’?
Michael Shermer: It’s not hard, it’s not difficult at all – you just have to ask a few probing questions like ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘how do you know that’s true?’, ‘who said that?’, ‘what were their sources?’, ‘have their sources been double checked?’, ‘have they been fact checked?’ – you know these are just really basic like journalism type questions that any first year journalism student learns – that you can’t just read the newspaper and expect that that’s the truth – you got to know ‘what are the other sources?’, ‘what’s the source of that fact, and that fact?’ You’ve got to have more than one source, and cross check and fact check and things like that – so in fact its really just a matter of thinking critically in terms of asking questions; critical questions – just like ‘well that’s interesting – how do you know?’, ‘where did you hear that?’, ‘what’s the site?’ – ‘well you know I read it on the interweb’ – well most of the stuff is not fact checked on the interweb – Alex Jones’ ‘Info Wars’ – he talks about the aliens are running the government – you know whatever – down the rabbit hole you go with some of these websites – particularly the conspiratorial minded ones – you don’t have to have a degree in science that there’s something fishy going on there – you’ve just have to ask ‘come on, does that really work?’, ‘does that really fit with the way we know the world works?’ – its basically questions like that – we call it a baloney detection – Carl Sagan called it ‘the baloney detection kit’ – we’ve since published something along those lines called ‘the baloney detection kit’ at skeptics.com – Carl stated in his great book ‘Demon Haunted World’ just asking questions, you know – kicking the tires before you buy the car – just asking really basic questions like the ones I just said – so that – just start right there – by challenging the authority. ‘How do you know?’
Adam Ford: Absolutely! So – I might ask – sometimes I think it’s a bit counter productive to get too political in some of the interviews I do, because I’m not a political scientist – but.. what are your views on the current state of politics in America and Britain – do you see a promising horizon in the future?
Michael Shermer: Well, yeah – I’m an optimist – you know despite the last year of political upheaval; and everyone is all panicky and worrying – just calm down everybody – tranquillo; everything is going to be ok – we have spent centuries building civil societies – no one person can destroy it all; it’s not the end of the world – for all these things: artificial intelligence, terrorism – you know, these are not existential threats – I don’t think there are any (with the possible exception of nuclear weapons) anything that can destroy civilization – so you know just carry on in an optimistic way – continue making progress no matter who’s in power. I think there’s enough checks and balances in place to keep things stable.
Adam Ford: Well there are a certain amount of checks and balances to keep things stable. But you know, I can’t avoid the possibility that things could go pear shaped – so biasing the odds of achieving the kinds of futures we want is something that I think is worth doing – but also on that topic – we can use science to help us shape our understandings of how to do the most good in the world. Some people call this ‘science philanthropy’ – there has been successes in medicine in improving lives a lot over the years – and successes in other areas of science has had huge impacts. What areas of science and engineering do you think are both under-funded and under-populated and worth throwing resources at?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think that Social Sciences dealing with human problems like crime, racism, conflicts, civil wars – the kinds of things that kill people I think should be right up there with medicine. With public health we should have economic public health and political public health and conflict and peace studies – there are people that do this but I think they are under funded compared to say some of the medical professions or physics – which is all great – I don’t want to take any money from anybody just put more money into the social sciences, particularly the psychological sciences that study these kinds of human problems that we still need to work on. I mean we’ve wrote this book ‘The Moral Arc’ about moral progress over the last 500 years – I document there has been a lot of moral progress – we have a long ways to go – yeah so we need to keep working on it, and figure it out what it is we’ve been doing that is right and do more of that; and what it is we’ve been doing wrong and do less of that – and really that’s what social scientists do for a living – they try to figure out the cause of different things that we want to study – it’s not just a correlation but maybe there’s a causation there as well. There’s techniques to determine that – so I’d say more funding for that.
Adam Ford: Ok, what’s your view on funding basic fundamental science as opposed to applied scientific research?
Micheal Shermer: I think it’s both – I don’t think it’s fair to say one is more important than the other – I mean most of the applied research comes out of theoretical science – you have to have the theories first – you have to have the fundamental understanding of the laws and principles of nature that you then later manipulate through applied technologies and so we need both – so that’s why all the big companies: IBM, Google, Apple – they have their own research labs too; they have their professional scientists working there; all the pharmaceutical companies – they have their own professional scientists and their own laboratories – they know we have to make discoveries before we make products.
Adam Ford: The Effective Altruism movement has grown in popularity over the years. Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker … Peter Singer has definitely been involved, Stephen Pinker said it was one of the world’s best ideas. Have you any thoughts on the Effective Altruism movement?
Michael Shermer: Oh I think it’s great – I’m totally behind it – that and the animal rights movement and the application of the moral principles we have developed over the centuries: civil rights, civil liberties and so fourth – protections for those who can’t protect themselves, like animals – I think all of that’s important and the current movement that Peter Singer is pushing for, and I support it – mostly when I make my end of year donations, if there’s so many good charities I don’t know which one to pick – I just go to his website and he has a list – these are the ones we’ve spent years studying that we think save the most lives – or your dollar will go the farthest – and I just give my money to him – well his org (Adam: is it ‘The Life You Can Save’) – yeah the Life You Can Save – yep and it’s also a consciousness raising effort, which is the kinds of things that Gandhi did and Dr King did of just making people aware that we should be even thinking about those sorts of things – like what’s the value of life – how much money do you have to spend to save one life? Well it depends well if you talk about mosquito nets to prevent Malaria – it’s pretty cheap – a couple of bucks goes a long ways – you know, vitamins, water, just basic needs – that’s why I very much respect the Gates Foundation; they’re really going after to be solved which can be solved like within 6 months a year, a couple of years, 10 years, thirty years – you know, not pie in the sky stuff, like we’re going to build libraries for everybody – you know that was great – you know Carnegie did that, Rockefeller Foundation and all the things they did they’ve done over the last century – they are all good – but you know I like the idea – well let’s just save some lives right now
Adam Ford: Like pulling glass out of feet that are getting harmed today rather than worry about the long term future?
Michael Shermer: Yeah that’s right – well I mean both is good but you know if you want some bang for your buck that’s the best way to do it – to go for that – Effective Altruism – those kinds of moves that they make that are immediate and measurable – that’s why Gates is so good – he’s a scientist – well he is a technologist – he likes to measure things – you know I want quantitative measurements. So if we spend 100 million dollars in Africa on this problem, can I see a difference next year? I want to see the graph, I want to see the pie chart, I want to see the slice of the problem getting smaller – they’re projecting the end of poverty as the UN has defined it – $1.25 a day or less for extreme poverty, $2.50 a day or less for regular poverty – they are projecting the end of that – it will be zero percent by 2030 – that’s only 13 years from now – that’s unbelievable! Thousands of years of ‘we’ve always had the poor with us’ – before 1900 it was about 80% of the worlds population was poor, was living in poverty – now it’s about 10% – that’s a huge, huge improvement – and it’s almost, I wouldn’t say it’s unnoticed, but you know the activists who hew and cry that things are bad and getting worse – I think it’s good to have people like myself and Stephen Pinker, Peter Singer and others that are more optimistic say ‘Hey wait a minute – we have a lot of work to do but we’ve come a long ways’.
Adam Ford: Absolutely yeah – it’s good to report that achievements have been made. Unfortunately in the news people like to watch horror and they seem to not necessarily like – but if it bleeds it leads they say – and people are attracted to.. are paying attention to news snippets that have something to do with something that’s wrong in the world. And it’s unfortunate that people loose track of what’s going right – because what’s going right in the world helps reinforce us to work in the direction of made what’s right in the world happen – okay so yeah I think people miss out on a lot when they have this constant negativity bias in selecting the type of news that one sees.
So what do you think the most exciting thing is in developments in STEM is? What do you think think is the most exciting news in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or engineering (as some people like to say)?
Michael Shermer: Oh well I think it’s definitely the application of technologies through smart phones, and iPads and laptops through the internet and reversing the classroom; essentially you can get your classroom lectures online for free! Not just the MOOC courses – the online video recordings of professors giving lectures (you know there’s 1000s of them now) but like the Khan Academy videos – these are short little 5 minute, 8 minute tutorials on very specific things, you know, math, algebra, english literature history, there’s 1000s of them now – I think the Gates Foundation is backing them too – that is getting beyond the idea that you have to have a brick and mortar building with kids sitting in rows – like little soldiers – because the fact that the original classroom was designed in a way to impose order on children and teach them to be good citizens and soldiers for the nation. I mean it was really Nationalism kind of movement – it’s not that I’m against having classrooms – I’m a professor, I have a class where I will be lecturing for hours in a classroom with 25 students sitting there taking notes – that’s fine, that’s good – it’s not the only thing – you can get any kind of education you want now, right now! I can too – I take teaching company courses when I’m out riding my bike or commuting the LA traffic – I listen to lectures – they are about 30 minutes – by the best professors in the world that go to the studio and this company, record these lectures professionally and they’re great – you know I take stuff on Shakespeare, taking courses on ancient history – there’s 100s of courses like that – I would never have the time otherwise to just sit down and take a class.. but if you’re just driving, or if you’re out walking, hiking, working out or cycling (in my case) why not get information – and it’s super cheap, it’s unbelievably cheap (Adam: Yes some are for free, it’s incredible!) – even podcasts! You know I’m a latecomer to doing podcasts thing as a guest being interviewed but folks are listening to it – and it turns out there are some really good podcasts – they’re totally free – and they’re unscripted conversations, like you and I are having – they just talk – and I learn a lot from people I’ve either never heard of or have heard of and have always wanted to read their book or whatever – or just didn’t have time – and here he is, he is just talking for the next hour and a half – in the case of Joe Rogan – 40 hours on a particular topic – you know it’s great – and it’s free! Again one of those projections in the future – at some point person on the planet will have access to the internet and virtually all knowledge will be free and immediately accessible on a hand held device – that’s gotta change the world!
Adam Ford: Yeah I know – I mean the more rationally and I guess informed people are, the more likely I think people will be able to make better informed decisions (Michael: Hopefully!) – I suspect it will be the case but there are still a lot of ideas on the internet that don’t have a lot of basis in proof so my next question is – what kinds of ideas that some people loosely define as ‘scientific’ are ready to be thrown out, retired, or put to rest? and why the hell are they still in currency?
Michael Shermer: First of all the internet is like the printing press – we don’t want to ban certain sites, just like we don’t want to ban books – it’s a bad idea. The new technologies bring side effects that are unwanted – in this case non-fact checked sites that just spew, not just spewing hate but false information – which in many ways is even worse – I mean the hate, the bigotry stuff you can see it – it’s obvious and anybody that has a brain and a heart can ignore it – but the information that’s not quite true – not crazy stuff like ‘Aliens are running the world.. lizards living in Mexico…’ you know – no one believes that – it’s more of the stuff that you know ‘I heard that whatever..’ is some political thing – we get back to the problem of baloney detection, we have to have certain critical questions that we ask before we accept things as true – and that’s what we’re here for – that’s what you do, that’s what I do – we’re all out there pushing back, push back, push back – and that there is many people who are aware that there you can’t just believe everything that you read on the internet.
Adam Ford: Okay – on the theme of being scientifically minded – in what ways have you personally updated your belief based on new evidence – what have you changed your mind about? (it could be something that happened yonks ago, or recently)
Michael Shermer: Well both, I used to be a born again Christian and a creationist and I abandoned both of those beliefs when I saw the facts didn’t support it. More recently, I used to be always in favor of the death penalty – mainly out of sympathy for the victims families – but then that always kind of went against my libertarian beliefs because I’m always hesitant about having the state having too much power; I was always slightly conflicted about that. Then when I was writing ‘The Moral Arc’ I really looked into the literature on ‘does it deter crime?’ – no, ‘does it deter homicides?’ – no. Because most of these crimes and homicides are committed in acts of emotional outbursts – usually there’s some moralistic component to it – it’s not a thought through rational calculation by a rational agent saying ‘okay I can get the Rolex watch, I can steal the car but I might face the death penalty’ – there’s no calculations like that anyway. And worst of all the corruption of the criminal justice system and too many people have very likely been put to death and are sitting on death row who don’t belong there – we know that for sure 100% over 200 have been exonerated through DNA alone – these are mostly rape homicide cases where there’s a rape case still in the archives that can be tested using DNA introduced in the 90s and that’s changed everything. And it’s come out that not only that but also a lot of police departments and criminal justice systems are not very efficient – not just corruption but also relying on things like eye-witness testimony which is not reliable. I’d like to air on the side of keeping too much power from the state – the power to kill people – the death penalty, also I’m sympathetic to the victims families yes but prison is a pretty rotten place to be and maybe there’s some satisfaction in knowing that the person who killed your loved one is at least rotting away on one of these hell holes – maybe it would feel better … I don’t know, there’s just too many problems with the death penalty. Gun control – I think we should have some gun control – some background checks – just basic stuff that most people think is reasonable – I used to be against those, now I’m for those. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.
Adam Ford: Awesome! Well next question would be: what invention or idea do you think will change ‘everything’?
Michael Shermer: Yeah – that was one the Brockman Edge.org questions – I can’t remember what my answer was now – but I think it was the scientific method – the way of science – it’s already been invented but just keep doing more of it. Obviously some big ones like the internet a game changer for sure. But the problem is I don’t even know what we don’t know – if you asked that question of Homo Erectus 2 million years ago, it would be ‘oh I think better stone tools are going to change everything’ – they’re not thinking ‘I need more bandwidth’ for my internet – they don’t even know what they don’t know – we didn’t even know about the internet say 25 years ago – 50 years ago, whatever. There was no such thing.. yeah well you know if in 50 years 125 – I don’t know, I really don’t – I think that one big thing would be .. you know my next book is called ‘Heavens on earth – the quest for immortality’ – I’ve been reading a lot about radical life extension, cryonics..
Adam Ford: You know that’s an interest of mine – I don’t believe in immortality – but I certainly think that radical life extension is possible in theory, in principle, it’s just that I don’t think we have any clear signs of it happening within our lifetimes – but it might happen in our lifetimes – and I’m open to that and I’ll certainly be all for it. You know, I’ve done a lot of interviews with Aubrey de Grey and a number of other people – that have pretty concrete predefined testable theories about whether this will work or not.. so lets see.
Michael Shermer: So I mean in terms of what would be a break through – it’s not getting people to live 200 years, 500 years or whatever – I think it’s getting more people to live quality lives into their 80s, 90s and even into their 100s – the maximum life span is about 125 – no one’s ever going to make it past that and there are genetic reasons for that – that we can’t yet solve involving the telomeres and all that – but instead of worrying about that, let’s just link certain problems like alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease – the things that take you out or make you miserable at the end of your life, you know.. (Adam: Extending health-span) yes.. instead of living from 80-90 or 90-100 bed ridden, miserable and unable to walk – that’s not living – so that would be a goal for people that do that kind of research to aim for – you know I mean people I interviewed for my book say ‘sure, don’t you want to live to be 500?’ – my response is just get me to 100 without being senile, bed ridden with tubes in my stomach and just completely out of it – I don’t want to live like that – I’m not worried about 500 years – I just want to get to 100 and have a good healthy life…
Adam Ford: See how you feel when you get to 100, and the new generations of medicine are out and about then – then you can decide whether you want to continue to live – if you’re miserable and sad you may not want to continue – and that’s the thing, it’s a useful technology to give people choice about whether they want to continue to exist or not – and I think that’s interesting.
Micheal Shermer: Yeah well the polls on it show that most people say that they would not want to live beyond usually about 80 to 85 years – and you know, I think they are just not thinking this through carefully – they are thinking they are going to be bed ridden or whatever – of course, no one wants to live like that – but in fact if you were healthy and said well ‘you have a death sentence, you are going to die a week from tomorrow – but if you take this pill you will live an extra year – would you like to do that?’ – ‘Oh, yeah of course’ – yeah and so take it forward another year and make the same offer ‘yeah, I’ll take one more year’… and one more year, and one more year! As long as you’re healthy and reasonably happy .. of course we can see if we can op that – no ones going to go ‘no, I’m done’ – well unless your suicidal – the average healthy, happy person is not going to say ‘I’m done now’ – because of some philosophical, metaphysical notion of ‘we should only live as long as is normal or natural’ – well what that means is most of us would have been dead long ago anyway because there is very little natural in modern medicine – the whole point of medicine is to overcome those natural problems that disease and just entropy – just the assault on the body and brain that we are learning to reverse or avoid.
Adam Ford: Have you interviewed Liz Parrish at all? (Michael: no, I don’t know Liz) – well this is something interesting – there are a number of people who are interested in rejuvenating the telomeres (with the aid of telomerase) without causing cancer – there are some people who seem to be making some in-roads – but I don’t know what kind of test need to be done to justify whether they have made any success – and whether they will take 30 years to do the test or not. But it is interesting that there are people working on that problem knowing that if you just do it in a hap-hazard way you might end up causing disease – like causing cancer.
Michael Shermer: That’s right pleiotropy .. (Adam: Antagonistic pleiotropy?) .. yeah that’s right – so you have to be careful about that – but I was encouraged to see that it looks like drinking beer might be good for oneself so maybe Aubrey de Grey is on to something there – you know he loves beer (Adam: he certainly does) – and so do I so hey okay!
Adam Ford: Well the last joint question is: What are you most concerned about and what are you most optimistic about with reference to STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine or mathematics)?
Michael Shermer: Well, I guess more broadly – first, concern about Islamic terrorism, and fundamentalist religion and in general and Islamic terrorism in particular – I don’t think it’s an existential threat – they’re not going to take over the western world – that’s not going to happen – you know but it can cause a lot of carnage and that’s a concern. The continued reduction of nuclear weapons I think is important – I want to look forward to more of that. In terms of STEM and continuing to promote science – is just we don’t want any setbacks. This idea that political ideology or economic ideology or religious beliefs trump scientific facts… no, no, no, no, no! We have to change our beliefs to fit the facts and not vice versa – that’s a deep rooted human problem within our nature to want to be right regardless of the facts, in the teeth of counter evidence – it’s called cognitive dissonance, the more you commit to a particular belief and you confront facts that contradict it the more likely you are to spin doctor the facts rather than your beliefs and that’s a very human problem – every body does it – you know so I think that’s an area we need more work on – not just understanding how it works, we know how cognitive dissonance works, but what to do about it – so long as we’re working on that. So that’s what I’m optimistic about!
Adam Ford: And I’m optimistic about the Science March!
Michael Shermer: Yes right I’m not it – lets go, let’s do it!
Adam Ford: So I hope people get involved and show to the world just how interested people are in science. It’s been fantastic having you on the show again! So I hope we cross paths again!
Michael Shermer: Oh we will, well definitely when my book comes out next January we’ll do another conversation.
Alright take care, cheers!
The simulation hypothesis doesn’t seem to be a terse parsimonious explanation for the universe we live in. If what is most important is to simulate ancestors, what’s the motivation for all the hugely detailed rendering of space? Why not just simulate earth or our solar system or our galaxy?
People often jump to the conclusions and assume* that the great simulators have infinite computing power. Infinity – another thing we have never been able to measure 🙂 Max Tegmark wrote an interesting piece about why infinity is probably not real. Until we do have evidence of infinities in the real world, I believe we should treat all thought experiments that rely on infinities as mere intuition pumps.
Without the assumption that potential simulators have infinite computing power, but assume instead they have a finite amount – it seems logical that there would be a cost/benefit trade-off between computation and simulation, detail/number of sims that would need to be taken into account. Limits to available computation would decrease the motivation for building huge amounts of simulations and/or highly detailed simulations.
People think their way around the astronomical computational waste and add yet another extra assumption* that the simulation may grow to fill all the spaces we probe and interact with – though this would still increase the computational requirements to run the simulation. With this assumption, we should believe that if we are in a simulation, compared to just 500 years ago, it is costing the simulators a whole lot more to run now that we can stare into the depths of physics and peer about the universe. It has been argued that we should avoid building big computers or perform certain experiments because the simulators may decide to turn off our simulation because it begins costing them to much to run.
If we are in a simulation – many argue for the most part, it probably doesn’t matter. Based on Newcomb’s problem – even if we are in an elegant simulation, then the simulated laws of physics will behave just as they would if they were actual laws
If we feel compelled to put an estimate on it – the more we develop empirically informed naturalistic explanations for the universe, the lower our estimates should be that we are in a simulation.
If there are considerable costs to creating simulations with the detail of our universe – why simulate ancestors if it costs so much?
What is so important about ancestor simulations to justify the expense?
* the more assumptions we add to a hypothesis, the less certain we should be about it
The Seminal Nick Bostrom Interview
Here is the interview I did with Bostrom in 2012:
Why so much confidence that we are in a simulation?
I hear reports that Bostrom’s confidence that we are in a simulation have decreased over the years (less than 10% I heard recently – can’t find a direct reference right now) – while others, after he wrote the seminal paper, have increased their confidence quite dramatically. Based on various article headlines I am fairly certain that many latch onto a surface level understanding of the arguments that support their existing biases. So its probably best to read the paper and understand the Simulation Hypothesis and the Simulation Argument before hand waving about what Bostrom thinks.
How much credence should we give sound arguments that are empirically unfalsifiable?
I’d say some – not everything can be falsified – generally I rank arguments with empirical evidence higher than those that don’t.
I Wonder what do the Intelligent Design movement think of this?
Some atheists may be worried that such a philosophical implications – but most seem to think the Simulation Argument is cool.
Various links on the simulation argument and hypothesis curated by Bostrom – including the original paper: http://www.simulation-argument.com/
An exploration of the philosophical concept of metaphysical identity, using numerous variations on the infamous Ship of Theseus thought experiment.
Video interview with Keith Wiley
Note: a separate text interview is below.Keith Wiley is the author of A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading, available on Amazon.
The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’ paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.
The paradox had been discussed by other ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus and Plato prior to Plutarch’s writings, and more recently by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Several variants are known, including the grandfather’s axe, which has had both head and handle replaced.
See more at Wikipedia…
Note this is not a transcription of the video/audio interview.
The Ship of Theseus Metaphor
Adam Ford: Firstly, what is the story or metaphor of the Ship of Theseus intended to convey?
Keith Wiley: Around the first century AD, Plutarch wrote several biographies, including one of the king Theseus entitled Life of Theseus, in which he wrote the following passage:
People sometimes erroneously believe that Plutarch presents the scenario (replacing a ship piecemeal style until all original material is absent) with a conclusion or judgment, i.e., that it makes some prescription of the “correct” way to interpret the scenario (as to, yes or no, is the ship’s identity preserved). However, as you see from the passage above, this is not the case. Plutarch left the question open. He mere poses the question and leaves it to the reader to ruminate on an actual answer.
The specific questions in that scenario are:
- Does identity require maintaining the same material components? Aka, is identity tied and indicated by specific sets of atoms?
- If not, then does preservation of identity require some sort of temporally overlapping sequence of closely connected parts?
The more general question being asked is: What is the nature of identity? What are its properties? What are its requirements (to claim preservation under various circumstances)? What traits specify identity and indicate the transformations under which identity may be preserved and under which it is necessarily lost?
Here is a video explainer by Keith Wiley (intended to inspire viewers to think about identity preservation)
Adam Ford: How does this story relate to mind uploading?
Keith Wiley: The identity of relatively static objects, and of objects not possessing minds or consciousness, is an introduction to the thornier question of metaphysical personal identity, i.e., the identity of persons. The goal in considering how various theories of identity describe what is happening in the Ship of Theseus is to prime our thinking about what happens to personal identity of people in analogous scenarios. For example, in a most straightforward manner, the Ship of Theseus asks us to consider how our identity would be affected if we replaced, piecemeal style, all the material in our own bodies. The funny thing is, this is already the case! It is colloquially estimated that our bodies turn over their material components approximately every seven years (whether this is precisely accurate is beside the point). The intent is not that a conclusion drawn from the Ship of Theseus definitively resolves the question concerning personal identity, because the former is a much simpler scenario. The critical distinction is that people are more obviously dynamic across time than static physical objects because our minds undergo constant psychological change. This raises the question of whether some sort of “temporal continuity” is at play in people that does not take effect in ships. There is also the question of whether consciousness somehow changes the discussion in radical ways. So the Ship of Theseus is not conclusive on personal identity. It is just a way to get us started in thinking about such issues.
Adam Ford: Fishing for clarification on how you use the term ‘identity’, Robin Hanson (scenario of uploads in the future in Age of Em) enquired about what kind of identity concept you are interested in. That is, what function do you intend this concept to serve?
Keith Wiley: Sure. First, and this might not be what Robin meant, there are different fundamental kinds of identity, two big ones being quantitative and numerical. Two things quantitatively identified possess the same properties, but are not necessarily “the same entity”. Two things numerically identical are somehow “the same thing”, which is problematic in its phrasing since they were admitted to be “two things” to begin with. The crucial distinction is in whether numerical identity makes any difference, or whether quantitative identity is all the fundamentally matters.
For me, I phrase the crucial question of personal identity relative to mind uploading in the following way: Do we grant equal primacy to claims to the original single identity to all minds (people) who psychologically descend from that common ancestral mind (person)? I always phrase it this way: granting primacy in claims to a historical identity. Do we tolerate the metaphysical interpretation that all descendant minds are equal in the primacy of their claim to the identity they perceive themselves to be? Alternatively, do we disregard such claims, dictating to others that they are not, in fact, who they believe themselves to be, and that they are not entitled to the rights of the people they claim to be? My concern is of:
bias (differing assignments of traits to various people),
prejudice (differing assignments of values, claims, or rights resulting from bias),
and discrimination (actions favoring and dismissing various people, resulting from prejudices).
Adam Ford: Is ‘identity’ the most appropriate word to be using here?
Keith Wiley: Well, identity certainly doesn’t seem to fully “work”. There’s always some boundary case or exception that undermines any identity theory we attempt to assign. My primary concern, such as it is on an entirely abstract philosophical musing (at this point in history when mind uploading isn’t remotely possible yet) is only secondarily the nature of identity. The primary concern, justified by those secondary aspects of identity, is whether we should regard uploads in some denigrated fashion. Should we dismiss their claims that they are the original person, that they should be perceived as the original person, that they should be treated and entitled and “enrighted” as the original person? I don’t just mean from a legal standpoint. We can pass all sorts of laws that force people to be respectful, but that’s an uninteresting question to me. I’m asking if it is fundamentally right or wrong to regard an upload in a denigrated way when judging its identity claims.
Ontology, Classification & Reality
Adam Ford: As we move forward the classification of identity will likely be fraught with struggle. We might need to invent new words to clarify the difference between distinct concepts. Do you have any ideas for new words?
Keith Wiley: The terminology I generally use is that of mind descendants and mind ancestors. In this way we can ask whether all minds descending from a common ancestral mind should be afforded equal primacy in their claim to the ancestral identity, or alternatively, whether there is a reasonable justification to exhibit biases, prejudices, and discriminations against some minds over such such questions. Personally, I don’t believe any such asymmetry in our judgment of persons and their identity claims can be grounded on physical or material traits (such as whose brain is composed of more matter from the ancestral brain, which comes up when debating nondestructive uploading scenarios).
Adam Ford: An appropriate definition for legal reasons?
Keith Wiley: I find legal distinctions to be uninteresting. It used to be illegal for whites and blacks to marry. Who cares what the law says from a moral, much less metaphysical, perspective. I’m interested in finding the most consistent, least arbitrary, and least paradoxical way to comprehend reality, including the aspect of reality that describes how minds relate to their mental ancestors.
Adam Ford: For scientific reasons?
Keith Wiley: I don’t believe this is a scientific question. How to procedurally accomplish uploading is a scientific question. Whether it can be done in a nondestructive way, leaving the original body and brain unharmed, is a scientific question. Whether multi-uploading (producing multiple uploads at once) is technically possible is a scientific question, say via an initial scan that can be multi-instantiated. I think those are crucial scientific endeavors that will be pursued in the future, and I participate in some of the discussions around that research. But at this point in history, when nothing like mind uploading is possible yet, I am pursuing other aspects, nonscientific aspects, namely the philosophical question of whether we have the correct metaphysical notion of identity in the first place, and whether we are applying identity theories in an irrational, or even discriminatory, fashion.
Implications for Brain Preservation
Adam Ford: Potential brain preservation (inc cryonics) customers may be interested in knowing the possible likely science of reanimation (which, it has been suggested, includes mind uploading) – and the type of preservation which will most likely achieve the best results. Even though we don’t have mind uploading yet – people are committing their brains to preservation strategies that are to some degree based on strategies for revival. Mummification? No – that probably won’t work. Immersion in saline based solution? Yeah for short periods of time. Plastination? Yes but only if it’s the connectome we are after… And then there is different methods of cryonic suspension that may be tailored to different intended outcomes – do you want to destructively scan the brain layer by layer and be uploaded in the future? Do you want to be able to fully revive the actual brain in the (potentially in a longer term future)?
Keith Wiley: People closer to the cryonics community than myself, such as some of my fellow BPF board members, claim that most current cryonics enthusiasts (and paying members or current subjects) are not of the mind uploading persuasion, preferring biological revival instead. Perhaps because they tend to be older (baby boomer generation) they have not bought into computerization of brains and minds. Their passion for cryonics is far more aligned with the prospect of future biological revival. I suspect there will be a shift toward those of a mind uploading persuasion as the newer generations, more comfortable with computers, enter the cryonics community.
As you described above, there are few categories of preservation and a few paths of potential revival. Preservation is primarily of two sorts: cryogenic and at least conceivably reversible, and room temperature and inconceivably reversible. The former is amenable to both biological revival and mind uploading. The latter is exclusively amenable to mind uploading. Why would one ever choose the latter option then? Simple: it might be the better method of preservation! It might preserve the connectome in greater detail for longer periods of time with lesser rates of decay — or it might simply be cheaper or otherwise easier to maintain over the long term. After all, cryonic storage requires cryonic facilities and constant nitrogen reintroduction as it boils off. Room temperature storage can be put on the shelf and forgotten about for millennia.
Adam Ford: What about for social (family) reasons?
Keith Wiley: This is closer to the area where I think and write, although not necessarily in a family-oriented way. But social in terms of whether our social contracts with one another should justify treating certain people in a discriminatory fashion and whether there is a rational basis for such prejudices. Not that any of this will be a real-world issue with which to tackle for quite some time. But perhaps some day…
Adam Ford: If the intended outcomes of BP are for subjective personal reasons?
Keith Wiley: I would admit that much of my personal interest here is to try to grind out the absolutely most logical way to comprehend minds and identity relative to brains, especially under the sorts of physical transformations that brains could hypothetically experience (Parfit’s hemispherical fission, teleportation, gradual nanobot replacement, freeze-slice-scan-and-emulate, etc.).
Adam Ford: In relation to appropriate definitions of ‘identity’ for scientific reasons – what are your thoughts on the whole map/territory ‘is science real’ debate? Where do you sit – scientific realism, anti-realism and structural realism (epistemic or ontic)? what’s your favorite?
Keith Wiley: I suppose I lean toward scientific realism (to my understanding: scientific claims and truths hold real truth value, not just current societal “perspective”, and further they can be applied to yet-to-be observed phenomena), although antirealism is a nifty idea (scientific truths are essentially those which we have yet to disprove, but expect to with some future overturning, or furthermore, unobserved phenomena are not reasonable subjects of scientific inquiry). The reason I don’t like the latter is it leads to antiintellectualism, which is a huge problem for our society. Rather than overturning or disregarding scientific theories, I prefer to interpret it as that we refine them, saying that new theories apply in corners where the old ones didn’t fit well (Newton’s laws are fine in many circumstances, but are best appended by quantum mechanics at the boundary’s of their applicability). Structural and ontic realism are currently vague to me. I’ve read about them but haven’t really grinded through their implications yet.
Adam Ford: If we are concerned about our future and the future of things we value we perhaps should ask a fundamental question: How do things actually persist? (Whether you’re a perdurantist or an endurantist – this is still a relevant question – see 5.2 ‘How Things Persist?’ in ‘Endurantism and Perdurantism’)
Keith Wiley: Perdurantism and Endurantism are not terms I have come across before. I do like the idea of conceptualizing objects as 4D temporal “worms”. I describe brains that way in my book for example. If this is the “right” way (or at least a good way) to conceive of the existence of physical objects, then it partially solves the persistence or preservation-of-identity problem: preservation of identity is the temporal stream of physical continuity. The problem is, I reject any physical requirement for explicitly *personal* identity of minds, because there appears to be no associated physical trait — plus that would leave open how to handle brain fission, ala Parfit, so worms just *can’*t solve the problem of personal identity, only of physical objects.
Adam Ford: Cybernetics – signal is more important than substrate – has cybernetics influenced your thinking? If so, how?
Keith Wiley: If by signal, you mean function, then I’ve always held that the functional traits of the brain are far more important (it not entirely more important) than mere material components.
Adam Ford: “signal is more important than substrate” – Yet the signal quality depends on the substrate – surely a ship’s substrate is not as tightly coupled to its function of moving across a body of water (wood, fiberglass, even steel will work) than a conscious human mind is to its biological brain. in terms of the granularity of replacement part – how much is needed?
Keith Wiley: Good question. I have no idea. I tend to presume the requisite level is action potential processing and generation, which is a pretty popular assumption I think. We should be open on this question at this time in history and current state of scientific knowledge.
Adam Ford: What level of functional representation is needed in order to be preserve ‘selfhood’?
Keith Wiley: Short answer: We don’t know yet. Long answer, it is widely presumed that the action-potential patterns of the connectome are where the crucial stuff is happening, but this is a supposition. We don’t know for sure.
Adam Ford: A Trolley Problem applied to Mind Uploaded Clones: As with the classic trolley problem, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards 5 people. As in the classic case, you can divert it onto a separate track by pulling a nearby leaver. However, suddenly 5 functionally equivalent carbon copies* of the original 5 people appear on the separate track. Would you pull the lever to save the originals but kill the copies? Or leave the originals to die, saving the copies? (*assume you just know the copies are functionally equivalent to the originals)
Keith Wiley: Much of my writing focuses on mind uploading and the related question of what minds are and what personal identity is. My primary claim is that uploads are wholly human in their psychological traits and human rights, and furthermore that they have equal primacy in their claim to the identity of the person who preceded an uploading procedure — even if the bio-original body and brain survive! The upload is still no less “the original person” than the person housed in the materially original body, precisely because bodies and material preservation are irrelevant to who we are, by my reckoning. If this is not the case, then how can we solve the fission paradox? Who gets to “be the original” if we split someone in two? The best solution is that only psychological traits matter and material traits are simply irrelevant.
So, for those reasons, I would rephrase your trolley scenario thusly: track one has five people, track two has five other people. Coincidentally, pairs of people from each track have very recently diverging memories, but the scenario is psychologically symmetrical between the two tracks even if there is some physical asymmetry in terms of how old the various material compositions (bodies) are. So we can disregard notions of asymmetry for the purpose of analyzing the moral or identity-preserving-killing implications of the trolley problem. It is simply “Five people on one track, five on another. Should you pull the lever, killing those on the diverted track to save those on the initial track?” That’s how I rephrase it.
Adam Ford: I wonder if the experiment would yield different results if there were 5 individuals on one track and 6 copies of 1 person on the other? (As some people suggest that copies are actually identical to the original – eg for voting purposes)
Keith Wiley: But they clearly aren’t identical in the scenario you described. The classic trolley problem has always implied that the subjects are reasonably alert and mentally dynamic (thinking). It isn’t carefully described so as to imply that the people involved are explicitly unconscious, to say nothing of the complexities involved in rendering them as physically static objects (preserved brains undergoing essentially no metabolic or signal-processing (action potentials) activity. The problem is never posed that way. Consequently, they are all awake and therefore divergent from one another, distinct individuals with all the rights of individual personhood. So it’s just five against six in your example. That’s all there is to it. People might suggest, as you said above, that copies are identical to each other (or to the original), but those people are just wrong.
So an interesting question then, is what if the various subjects involved actually are unconscious or even rigidly preserved? Can we say their psychological sequences have not diverged and that they therefore represent redundant physical instantiations of a given mind? I explore this exact question in my book by the way. I think a case could be made that until psychological divergence (until the brains are rolling forward through time, accumulating experiences and memories) we can say they are redundant in terms of identity and associated person-value. But to be clear, if the bio-original was statically preserved, then uploaded or duplicated, and then both people were put on the train tracks in their preserved state, physically identical, frozen with no ongoing psychological experience, then I would be clear to state that while it might not matter if we kill the upload, it *also* doesn’t matter if we choose the other way and kill the bio-original! That is the obvious implication of my reasoning here. And in your case above, if we have five distinct people on one track (let’s stay everyone involved is statically preserved) and six uploads of one of those people on the other track, then we could recast the problem as “five on one track and one on the other”. The funny thing is, if we save the six and revive them, then, after the fact, we have granted life to six distinct individuals, but we can only say that after we revive them, not at the time of the trolley experiment when they are statically preserved. So now we are speculating on the “tentative” split personhood of a set of identical but static minds based on a later time when they might be revived. Does that tentative individuality grant them individuality while they are still preserved? Does the mere potential to diverge and individualize grant them full-blown distinct identity before the divergence has occurred? I don’t know. Fascinating question. I guess the anti-abortion-choice and pro-abortion-choice debate has been trying to sort out the personhood of tentative, potential, or possible persons for a long time (and by extension, whether contraception is acceptable hits the same question). We don’t seem to have all agreed on a solution there yet, so we probably won’t agree in this case either.
Philosophy of identity
Adam Ford: Retention of structure across atomic change – is identity the structure, the atomic composition, the atomic or structural continuum through change, or a mixture?
Keith Wiley: Depends on one’s chosen theory of identity of course. Body theory, psychological theory, psychological branching theory, closest continuer theory, 4D spacetime “worm” theory. There’s several to choose from — but I find that some more paradox-prone than others, and I generally take that as an indication of a weak theory. I’m a branchest, although the distinction from worm theory is, on some accounts, virtually indistinguishable.
Adam Ford: Leibniz thought about the Identity of indiscernibles (principle in ontology that no two things can have all properties the same) – if objX and objY share all the same properties, are they the same thing? If KeithX and KeithY share the same functional characteristics are they the same person?
Keith Wiley: But do they really share the same properties to begin with, or is the premise unfounded? When people casually analyze these sorts of scenarios, the two people are standing there, conscious, wondering if someone is about to pass judgment on them and kill them. They are experiencing the world from slightly different sensorial vantage points (vision, sound, etc.) Their minds are almost certainly diverged in their psychological state mere fractions of a second upon regaining consciousness. So they aren’t functionally identical in the first place. Thus the question is flawed, right? The question can only be applied if they are unconscious and rigidly preserved (frozen perhaps). Although I believe a case could be made that mere lack of consciousness is sufficient to designate them *psychologically* identical even if they are not necessarily physically identical due to microscopic metabolic variations — but I leave that subtly as an open question for the time being.
Adam Ford: Here is a Symmetric Universe counterexample – Max Black – two distinct perfect spheres (or two Ship of Theseuses) are two separate objects even though they share all the same properties – but don’t share the same space-time. What are your thoughts?
Keith Wiley: This is very close to worm theory. It distinguishes seemingly identical entities by considering their spacetime worms, which squiggle their way through different spacetime paths and are therefore not identical in the first place. They never were. The reason they appeared to be identical is that we only considered 3D space projection of their truly 4D spacetime structure. You can easily alias pairs of distinct higher-dimensional entities by looking only at their projections onto lower dimensions and thereby wrongly conclude that they are identical when, in fact, they never were to begin with in their true higher dimensional structure. For example, consider two volumes, a sphere and a cylinder. They are 3D. But project them onto a 2D plane (at the right angle) and you get two circles. You might wrongly conclude they are identical, but they weren’t to begin with! You simply ignored an entire dimension of their nature. That’s what the 4D spacetime worm says about the identity of physical objects.
However, once we dismiss any relevance or importance of physical traits anyway (because I reject body identity on the matter of personal identity, favoring psychological identity), then the 4D worm becomes more convoluted. The question then becomes, what sort of “time worm” describes psychological changes over time instead of physical, structure, and material changes over time? I think it’s as simple as: take an information pattern instantiated in a physical system (a brain), produce a second physical instantiation, and now readily conclude that the psychological temporal worm (just a temporal sequence of psychological states frankly) has diverged.
Adam Ford: Nice answer! – I’m certainly interested in hearing more about worm theory – I think this wikipedia source is about the same thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perdurantism
Do you have any personal writings I can point at in the text form of the interview?
Keith Wiley: Ah, I hadn’t heard that term before. Thanks for the reference. Well, I always refer to my book of course, and more recently Randal Koene and I published a paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies this past March.
Adam Ford: David Pearce is skeptical that our we as in our subjects of experience are actually enduring metaphysical egos – he seems more of a stage theorist – that each moment of subjective experience is fleeting – only persisting through one cycle of quantum cohesion delimited by decoherence.
Keith Wiley: Hmmm, I see the distinction in the link to stage theorist you provided above, and I do not believe I am committed to a position on that question. I go both ways in my own writing, sometimes describing things as true 4D entities (I describe brains that way in my book) but also writing quite frequently in terms of “mind descendants of mind ancestors”. That phrasing admits that perhaps identity does not span time in a temporal worm, but rather that it consists of instantaneous time slices of momentary identity connected in a temporal sequence. Like I said, I am uncommitted on this distinction, at least for now.
Identity: Accidental properties vs Essential properties
Adam Ford: Is the sense of an enduring metaphysical ego really an ‘accidental property’ (based on our intuitions of self) rather than an ‘essential property’ of identity?
Keith Wiley: It is possible we don’t yet know what a mind is in sufficient detail to answer such a question. I confess to not being entirely sure what the question is asking. That said, it is possible that conscious and cognitively rich aliens have come up with a fairly different way of comprehending what their minds actually are, and consequently may also have rather bizarre notions of what personal identity is.
Note that in the video, I sometimes offer an answer to the question “Did we preserve the ship in this scenario?” and I sometimes don’t, simply asking the viewer “So did we preserve it or not? What do you think?” This is because I’m certainly not sure of all the answers to this question in all the myriad scenarios yet.
Adam Ford: This argument is criticized by some modern philosophers on the grounds that it allegedly derives a conclusion about what is true from a premise about what people know. What people know or believe about an entity, they argue, is not really a characteristic of that entity.
There may be a problem in that what is true about a phenomenon or object (like identity) shouldn’t be derived from how we label or what we know about it – the label or description isn’t a characteristic of the identity (map not the territory etc).
Keith Wiley: I would essentially agree that identity shouldn’t merely be a convention of how we arbitrarily label things (i.e., that labeling grants or determines identity), but rather the reverse, that we are likely to label things so as to indicate how we perceive their identity. The question is, does our perception of identity indicate truth, which we then label, or does our perception determine or choose identity, which we then label? I would like to think reality is more objective than that, that there at least some aspects of identity that aren’t merely our choices, but rather traits of the world that we discover, observe, and finally label.
A Taxonomy and Metaphysics of Mind-Uploading https://www.amazon.com/dp/0692279849
The Fallacy of Favouring Gradual Replacement Mind Uploading Over Scan-and-Copy https://arxiv.org/abs/1504.06320 Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299820458_The_Fallacy_of_Favouring_Gradual_Replacement_Mind_Uploading_Over_Scan-and-Copy
The Endurance/Perdurance Distinction By Neil Mckinnon http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/713659467
Endurantism and Perdurantism for a discussion on 3 different ways on what these terms have been taken to mean : http://www.nikkeffingham.com/resources/Endurantism+and+Perdurantism.pdf
Perdure – remain in existence throughout a substantial period of time; persisting in virtue of having both temporal and spatial parts (alternatively the thesis that objects are four dimensional and have temporal parts)
Endure – being wholly present at all times at which it exists (endurance distinct from perducance in that endurance has strict identity and perdurance has a looser unity relation (genidentity))
Genidentity – is an existential relationship underlying the genesis of an object from one moment to the next.
Gunk – In mereology, an area of philosophical logic, the term gunk applies to any whole whose parts all have further proper parts. That is, a gunky object is not made of indivisible atoms or simples. Because parthood is transitive, any part of gunk is itself gunk.
Keith Wiley has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of New Mexico and was one of the original members of MURG, the Mind Uploading Research Group, an online community dating to the mid-90s that discussed issues of consciousness with an aim toward mind-uploading. He has written multiple book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles, and magazine articles, in addition to several essays on a broad array of topics, available on his website. Keith is also an avid rock-climber and a prolific classical piano composer.
Also see Jennifer Wang’s (Stanford University) video as she introduces us to the Ship of Theseus puzzle that has bedeviled philosophy since the ancient Greeks. She tells the Ship of Theseus story, and draws out the more general question behind it: what does it take for an object to persist over time? She then breaks this ancient problem down with modern clarity and rigor.
Anders Sandberg discusses ideas & values and where we get them from, mindsets for progress, and that we are living in a unique era of technological change but also, importantly we are aware that we are living in an era of great change. Is there a direction in ethics? Is morality real? If so, how do we find it? What will our descendants think of our morals today – will they be weird to future generations?
– Technologies of the Future
– Efficient sustainability, in-vitro meat
– Living in an era of awareness of change
– Values have changed over time
– Will our morals be weird to future generations?
– Where is ethics going?
– Does moral relativism adequately explain reductions in violence?
– Is there an ideal ‘best moral system’? and if so, how do we find it?
I grew up reading C.S. Lewis and his Narnia Stories. And at that time I didn’t get what was going on – I think it was when finally I was reading one, I then started thinking ‘this seems like an allegory’ and then sort of realizing ‘a christian allegory’ and then I felt ‘oh dear!’. I had to of course read all of them. In the end I was quite cross at Lewis for trying to foist that kind of stuff on children. He of course was unashamed – he was arguing in his letters ‘of course, if you are a christian you should make christian stories and try to tell them’ – but then of course he hides everything – so instead of having Jesus he turns him into a lion and so on.
But there’s an interesting problem in general of course ‘where do we get our ideas from?’. I grew up in boring Sweden in the 70’s so I had to read a lot of science fiction in order to get excited. That science fiction story reading made me interested in the technology & science and made it real – but it also gave me a sort of libertarian outlook accidentally. I realised that well, maybe our current rules for society are arbitrary – we could change them into something better. And aliens are people too, as well as robots. So in the end that kind of education also set me on my path.
So in general what we read as children effects us in sometimes very subtle ways – I was reading one book about technologies of the future by a German researcher – today of course it is very laughably 60ish – very much thinking about cybernetics and the big technologies, fusion reactions and rockets – but it also got me thinking about ‘we can change the world completely’ – there is no reason to think that it works out that only 700 billion people can live on earth – we rebuild it to house trillions – it wouldn’t be a particularly nice world, it would be nightmarish by our current standards – but it would actually be possible to do. It’s rather that we have a choice of saying ‘maybe we want to keep our world rather small scale with just a few billion people on it’. Other would say ‘we can’t event sustain a few billion people on the planet – we’re wearing out the biosphere’ – but again it’s based on a certain assumption about how the biosphere functions – we can produce the food more efficiently than we currently do. If we went back to the primitive hunter gatherers we would need several hundred earths to sustain us all simply hunter gatherers need enormous areas of land in order to get enough prey to hunt down in order to survive. Agriculture is much more effective – and we can go far beyond that – things like hydroponics and in-vitro meat might actually in the future mean that we would say it’s absolutely disgusting, or rather weird to culture farmland or eat animals! ‘Why would you actually eat animals? Well only disgusting people back in the stone-age did that’. In that stone age they were using silicone of course.
Dividing history into ages is very fraught because when you declare that ‘this is the atomic age’ you make certain assumptions – so the atomic age didn’t turn out so well because people lost their faith in their friend the atom – the space age didn’t turn out to be a space age because people found better ways of using the money – in a sense we went out into space prematurely before there was a good business case for it. The computer age on the other hand – well now computers are so everywhere that we could just as well call it the air age – it’s everywhere. Similarly the internet – that’s just the latest innovation – probably as people in the future look back we’re going to call it something completely different – just like we want to divide history into things like the Medieval age, or the Renaissance, which are not always more than just labels. What I think is unique about our era in history is that we’re very aware that we are living in a changing world; that is not going to be the same in 100 years, that is going to be utterly utterly different from what it was 100 years back. So many historical eras people have been thinking ‘oh we’re on the cusp of greatness or a great disaster’. But we actually have objective good reasons for thinking things cannot remain as they were. There are too many people, too many brains, too much technology – and a lot of these technologies are very dangerous and very transformative – so if we can get through this without too much damage to ourselves and the planet, I think we are going to have a very interesting future. But it’s also probably going to be a future that is somewhat alien from what we can foresee.
If we took an ancient roman and put him into the modern society he would absolutely shocked – not just by our technology, but by our values. We are very clear that compassion is a good virtue, and he would say the opposite and say ‘compassion is for old ladies’ – and of course a medieval knight would say ‘you have no honor in the 21st century’ and we’d say ‘oh yes, honor killings and all that – that’s bad, yeah actually a lot of those medieval honorable ideals they’re actually immoral by our standards’. So we should probably take that our moral standards are going to be regarded by the future as equally weird and immoral – and this is of course a rather chilling thought because our personal information is going to be available in the future to our descendants or even ourselves as older people with different values – a lot of advanced technologies we are worrying about are going to be wielded by our children, or by an older version of ourselves in ways we might not approve – but they’re going to say ‘yes but we’ve actually figured out the ethics now’.
The problem of course of where ethics is ever going is a really interesting question in itself – so people say oh yes, it’s just relative, it’s just societies making up rules to live by – but I do think we learned a few things – the reduction in violence over historical eras shows that we are getting something right. I don’t think that our relatives could just say that ‘violence is arbitrarily sometimes good and sometimes bad’ – I think it’s very clearly a bad thing. So I think we are making moral progress in some sense – we are figuring out better ways of thinking about morality. One of the interesting things about our current world is that we are aware that a lot of ideas about morality are things going on in our culture and in our heads – and are not just the laws of nature – that’s very useful. Some people of course think that there is some ideal or best moral system – and maybe there is – but we’re not very good at finding it. It might turn out that in the long run if there is some kind of ultimate sensible moral – we’re going to find it – but that might take a very long time and might take brains much more powerful than ours – it might turn out that all sufficiently advanced alien civilizations eventually figure out the right thing to do – and do it. But it could also turn out actually when we meet real advanced aliens they’re going to be as confused about philosophy as we are – that’s one of the interesting things to find out about the universe.
– Technologies of the Future
– Efficient sustainability, in-vitro meat
– Living in an era of awareness of change
– Values have changed over time
– Will our morals be weird to future generations?
– Where is ethics going?
– Does moral relativism adequately explain reductions in violence?
– Is there an ideal ‘best moral system’? and if so, how do we find it?
Elon Musk discusses possible best of alternative AI futures – in that the advanced AI tech is democratized – no one company has complete control over the AI tech – it could become a very unstable situation if powerful AI is concentrated in the hands of a few.
Elon also discusses improving the neural link between humans and AI – because humans are so slow – and also believes that merging with the AI will solve the control problem with AI.
Open AI seems to have a good team – as a 501c non-profit (unlike many non-profits) does have a sense of urgency in increasing the odds of a friendly AI outcome.
Transcript of the section of the interview where Elon Musk discusses Artificial Intelligence:
Interviewer: Speaking of really important problems, AI. You have been outspoken about AI. Could you talk about what you think the positive future for AI looks like and how we get there?
Elon: Okay, I mean I do want to emphasize that this is not really something that I advocate or this is not prescriptive. This is simply, hopefully, predictive. Because you will hear some say, well, like this is something that I want to occur instead of this is something I think that probably is the best of the available alternatives. The best of the available alternatives that I can come up with, and maybe someone else can come up with a better approach or better outcome, is that we achieve democratization of AI technology. Meaning that no one company or small set of individuals has control over advanced AI technology. I think that’s very dangerous. It could also get stolen by somebody bad, like some evil dictator or country could send their intelligence agency to go steal it and gain control. It just becomes a very unstable situation, I think, if you’ve got any incredibly powerful AI. You just don’t know who’s going to control that. So it’s not that I think that the risk is that the AI would develop a will of its own right off the bat. I think the concern is that someone may use it in a way that is bad. Or even if they weren’t going to use it in a way that’s bad but somebody could take it from them and use it in a way that’s bad, that, I think, is quite a big danger. So I think we must have democratization of AI technology to make it widely available. And that’s the reason that obviously you, me, and the rest of the team created OpenAI was to help spread out AI technology so it doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few. But then, of course, that needs to be combined with solving the high-bandwidth interface to the cortex.
Interviewer: Humans are so slow.
Elon: Humans are so slow. Yes, exactly. But we already have a situation in our brain where we’ve got the cortex and the limbic system… The limbic system is kind of a…I mean, that’s the primitive brain. That’s kind of like your instincts and whatnot. And the cortex is the thinking upper part of the brain. Those two seem to work together quite well. Occasionally, your cortex and limbic system will disagree, but they…
Interviewer: It generally works pretty well.
Elon: Generally works pretty well, and it’s like rare to find someone who…I’ve not found someone wishes to either get rid of the cortex or get rid of the limbic system.
Interviewer: Very true.
Elon: Yeah, that’s unusual. So I think if we can effectively merge with AI by improving the neural link between your cortex and your digital extension of yourself, which already, like I said, already exists, just has a bandwidth issue. And then effectively you become an AI-human symbiote. And if that then is widespread, with anyone who wants it can have it, then we solve the control problem as well, we don’t have to worry about some evil dictator AI because we are the AI collectively. That seems like the best outcome I can think of.
Interviewer: So, you’ve seen other companies in their early days that start small and get really successful. I hope I never get this asked on camera, but how do you think OpenAI is going as a six-month-old company?
Elon: I think it’s going pretty well. I think we’ve got a really talented group at OpenAI.
Interviewer: Seems like it.
Elon: Yeah, a really talented team and they’re working hard. OpenAI is structured as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. But many non-profits do not have a sense of urgency. It’s fine, they don’t have to have a sense of urgency, but OpenAI does because I think people really believe in the mission. I think it’s important. And it’s about minimizing the risk of existential harm in the future. And so I think it’s going well. I’m pretty impressed with what people are doing and the talent level. And obviously, we’re always looking for great people to join in the mission.
Anders Sandberg discusses solving coordination problems:
Includes discussion on game theory including:the prisoners dilemma (and the iterated form), the tit-for-tat strategy, and reciprocal altruism. He then discusses politics, and why he considers himself a ‘heretical libertarian’ – then contrasts the benefits and risks of centralized planning vs distributed trial & error and links this in with discussion on Existential Risk – centralizing very risky projects at the risk of disastrous coordination failures. He discusses groupthink and what forms of coordination work best. Finally he emphasises the need for a science of coordination – a multidisciplinary approach including:
- Political Science
- Game Theory
Also see the tutorial on the Prisoners Dilemma:
And Anders paper on AGI models.
The Coordination Game: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coordination_game
Understanding heavy-tailed distributions are important to assessing likelihoods and impact scales when thinking about possible disasters – especially relevant to xRisk and Global Catastrophic Risk analysis. How likely is civilization to be devastated by a large scale disaster or even go extinct?
Anders discusses how heavy-tailed distributions account for more than our intuitions tell us.
How likely is civilization to devastated by a global disaster or even go extinct?
In this video, Anders Sandberg discusses (with the aid of a whiteboard) how heavy-tailed distributions account for more than our intuitions tell us .
Considering large-scale disasters may be far more important than we intuit.
Transcript of dialog
So typically when people talk about probability they think about nice probability distribution like the bell curve or the Gaussian curve. So this means that it’s most likely that you get something close to zero and then less and less likely that you get very positive or very negative things and this is a rather nice looking curve.
However, many things in the world turn out to have much nastier probability distributions. A lot of disasters for example have a power law distribution. So if this is the size of a disaster and this is the probably, they fall off like this. This doesn’t look very dangerous from the start. Most disasters are fairly small, there’s a high probability of something close to zero and a low probability of something large. But it turns out that the probability getting a really large one can become quite big.
So suppose this one has alpha equal to 1 – that means that there is the chance of getting a disaster of size 10 is proportional to 1 in 10 and that disaster is 10 times as large that’s just a 10th of that probability and that it’s also 10 times as large as that big disaster (again a 10th of that).
That means that we’ve quite a lot of probability of getting very very large disasters – so in this case getting something that is very far out here is exceedingly unlikely, but in the case of power laws you can actually expect to see some very very large outbreaks.
So if you think about the time that various disasters happen – they happen irregularly and occasionally one is through the roof, and then another one, and you can’t of course tell when they happen – that’s random. And you can’t really tell how big they are going to be except that you’re going to be distributed in this way.
The real problem is that when something is bigger than any threshold that you imagine.. well it’s not just going to be a little bit taller, it’s going to be a whole lot taller.
So if we’re going to see a war for example as large as even the Second World War, we shouldn’t expect it to kill a million people more. We could expect it to kill tens or most likely hundreds or even a billions of people more – which is a rather scary prospect.
So the problem here is that disasters seem to be having these heavy tails. So a heavy a tail in probability slang that means that the probability mass over here, the chance that something very large is happening, there again it falls off very slowly. And this is of course a big problem because we tend to think in terms of normal distributions.
Normal distributions are nice. We say they’re normal because a lot of the things in our everyday life get distributed like this. The tallness of people for example – very rarely do we meet somebody who’s a kilometer tall, however, when we meet the people and think about how much they’re making or much money they have – well Bill Gates. He is far far richer than just ten times you and me and then he’s actually got, he’s from afar out here.
So when we get to the land where we have these fat heavy tails when both the the richest (if we are talking about rich people and the dangers if we talk about this) also tend to be much bigger than we can normally think about.
Adam: Hmm yes definitely un-intuitive.
Mmm and the problem is of course our intuitions are all shaped by what’s going on here in the normal realm. We have this experience about what has happened so far in our lives and once we venture out here and talk about very big events or intuitions suddenly become very bad. We make mistakes. We don’t really understand the consequences, cognitive biases take over and this can of course completely mess up our planning.
So we invest far too little in handling the really big disasters and we’re far too uninterested in going for the big wins in technology and science.
We should pay more attention probability theory (esp heavy-tailed distributions) in order to discover and avoid disasters that lurk beyond our intuitions.
Also see –
– Anders Sandberg: The Survival Curve of Our Species: Handling Global Catastrophic and Existential Risks
Anders Sandberg on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anders_Sandberg
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If we have more ability to think about the consequences of our actions, we have a greater ability not just to see the future, but to see ourselves in the future.