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Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari – Steve Fuller

Sapiens, a breif history of humankind - Yuval Noah HarariMy sociology of knowledge students read Yuval Harari’s bestselling first book, Sapiens, to think about the right frame of reference for understanding the overall trajectory of the human condition. Homo Deus follows the example of Sapiens, using contemporary events to launch into what nowadays is called ‘big history’ but has been also called ‘deep history’ and ‘long history’. Whatever you call it, the orientation sees the human condition as subject to multiple overlapping rhythms of change which generate the sorts of ‘events’ that are the stuff of history lessons. But Harari’s history is nothing like the version you half remember from school.

In school historical events were explained in terms more or less recognizable to the agents involved. In contrast, Harari reaches for accounts that scientifically update the idea of ‘perennial philosophy’. Aldous Huxley popularized this phrase in his quest to seek common patterns of thought in the great world religions which could be leveraged as a global ethic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Harari similarly leverages bits of genetics, ecology, neuroscience and cognitive science to advance a broadly evolutionary narrative. But unlike Darwin’s version, Harari’s points towards the incipient apotheosis of our species; hence, the book’s title.

This invariably means that events are treated as symptoms if not omens of the shape of things to come. Harari’s central thesis is that whereas in the past we cowered in the face of impersonal natural forces beyond our control, nowadays our biggest enemy is the one that faces us in the mirror, which may or may not be able within our control. Thus, the sort of deity into which we are evolving is one whose superhuman powers may well result in self-destruction. Harari’s attitude towards this prospect is one of slightly awestruck bemusement.

Here Harari equivocates where his predecessors dared to distinguish. Writing with the bracing clarity afforded by the Existentialist horizons of the Cold War, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener declared that humanity’s survival depends on knowing whether what we don’t know is actually trying to hurt us. If so, then any apparent advance in knowledge will always be illusory. As for Harari, he does not seem to see humanity in some never-ending diabolical chess match against an implacable foe, as in The Seventh Seal. Instead he takes refuge in the so-called law of unintended consequences. So while the shape of our ignorance does indeed shift as our knowledge advances, it does so in ways that keep Harari at a comfortable distance from passing judgement on our long term prognosis.

Homo Deus YuvalThis semi-detachment makes Homo Deus a suave but perhaps not deep read of the human condition. Consider his choice of religious precedents to illustrate that we may be approaching divinity, a thesis with which I am broadly sympathetic. Instead of the Abrahamic God, Harari tends towards the ancient Greek and Hindu deities, who enjoy both superhuman powers and all too human foibles. The implication is that to enhance the one is by no means to diminish the other. If anything, it may simply make the overall result worse than had both our intellects and our passions been weaker. Such an observation, a familiar pretext for comedy, wears well with those who are inclined to read a book like this only once.

One figure who is conspicuous by his absence from Harari’s theology is Faust, the legendary rogue Christian scholar who epitomized the version of Homo Deus at play a hundred years ago in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. What distinguishes Faustian failings from those of the Greek and Hindu deities is that Faust’s result from his being neither as clever nor as loving as he thought. The theology at work is transcendental, perhaps even Platonic.

In such a world, Harari’s ironic thesis that future humans might possess virtually perfect intellects yet also retain quite undisciplined appetites is a non-starter. If anything, Faust’s undisciplined appetites point to a fundamental intellectual deficiency that prevents him from exercising a ‘rational will’, which is the mark of a truly supreme being. Faust’s sense of his own superiority simply leads him down a path of ever more frustrated and destructive desire. Only the one true God can put him out of his misery in the end.

In contrast, if there is ‘one true God’ in Harari’s theology, it goes by the name of ‘Efficiency’ and its religion is called ‘Dataism’. Efficiency is familiar as the dimension along which technological progress is made. It amounts to discovering how to do more with less. To recall Marshall McLuhan, the ‘less’ is the ‘medium’ and the ‘more’ is the ‘message’. However, the metaphysics of efficiency matters. Are we talking about spending less money, less time and/or less energy?

It is telling that the sort of efficiency which most animates Harari’s account is the conversion of brain power to computer power. To be sure, computers can outperform humans on an increasing range of specialised tasks. Moreover, computers are getting better at integrating the operations of other technologies, each of which also typically replaces one or more human functions. The result is the so-called Internet of Things. But does this mean that the brain is on the verge of becoming redundant?

Those who say yes, most notably the ‘Singularitarians’ whose spiritual home is Silicon Valley, want to translate the brain’s software into a silicon base that will enable it to survive and expand indefinitely in a cosmic Internet of Things. Let’s suppose that such a translation becomes feasible. The energy requirements of such scaled up silicon platforms might still be prohibitive. For all its liabilities and mysteries, the brain remains the most energy efficient medium for encoding and executing intelligence. Indeed, forward facing ecologists might consider investing in a high-tech agronomy dedicated to cultivating neurons to function as organic computers – ‘Stem Cell 2.0’, if you will.

However, Harari does not see this possible future because he remains captive to Silicon Valley’s version of determinism, which prescribes a migration from carbon to silicon for anything worth preserving indefinitely. It is against this backdrop that he flirts with the idea that a computer-based ‘superintelligence’ might eventually find humans surplus to requirements in a rationally organized world. Like other Singularitarians, Harari approaches the matter in the style of a 1950s B-movie fan who sees the normative universe divided between ‘us’ (the humans) and ‘them’ (the non-humans).

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

The bravest face to put on this intuition is that computers will transition to superintelligence so soon – ‘exponentially’ as the faithful say — that ‘us vs. them’ becomes an operative organizing principle. More likely and messier for Harari is that this process will be dragged out. And during that time Homo sapiens will divide between those who identify with their emerging machine overlords, who are entitled to human-like rights, and those who cling to the new acceptable face of racism, a ‘carbonist’ ideology which would privilege organic life above any silicon-based translations or hybridizations. Maybe Harari will live long enough to write a sequel to Homo Deus to explain how this battle might pan out.

NOTE ON PUBLICATION: Homo Deus is published in September 2016 by Harvil Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Fuller would like to thank The Literary Review for originally commissioning this review. It will appear in a subsequent edition of the magazine and is published here with permission.

Video Interview with Steve Fuller covering the Homo Deus book

Steve fuller discusses the new book Homo Deus, how it relates to the general transhumanist philosophy and movementfactors around the success of these ideas going mainstream, Yuval Noah Harari’s writing style, why there has been a bias within academia (esp sociology) to steer away from ideas which are less well established in history (and this is important because our successfully navigating the future will require a lot of new ideas), existential risk, and we contrast a posthuman future with a future dominated by an AI superintelligence.

Yuval Harari’s books

– ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’: https://www.amazon.com/Homo-Deus-Brief-History-Tomorrow-ebook/dp/B019CGXTP0/

– ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’: https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-Humankind-Yuval-Noah-Harari/dp/0062316095/

Discussion on the Coursera course ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ (which I took a few years ago): https://www.coursetalk.com/providers/coursera/courses/a-brief-history-of-humankind

Is Infinity Real?

There is an interesting discussion at Quanta “Solution: ‘Is Infinity Real?’” – Is infinity a real physical phenomenon outside our models? Max Tegmark doesn’t think so – while admitting it is indisputably useful for mathematical models of physics, he believes that nothing is truly continuous – including space and time.
infinity_500Would an infinitely X* phenomenon be amenable to observational evidence? Perhaps not – and if so, we can never count one infinity, making it difficult to assign a likelihood that infinity exists in the territory and not as just convenient approximations in our maps.
Max believes also there are good philosophical reasons to ditch infinity and pitfalls in assuming infinity in mathematical models. Four points that should be understood (which are detailed in the linked Quanta article):
1. The map is not the territory.
2. Infinity is valid in mathematical models and can be very useful.
3. In the physical world, there are compelling practical and philosophical reasons to reject infinity as a default assumption.
4. There will be limiting cases where the mathematical infinity assumption and the physical absence of infinity result in different answers.
 
Finite models are proposed as solutions to replace infinite solutions for a few mathematical problems: Hilbert’s hotel, the 100, 200, 300 Triangle, and the Elliptical Pool Table.
“So the bottom line is: Infinity is permissible in mathematics applied to physics because it makes things convenient and tractable in most cases. However, we must be alert for limiting cases where our models are bound to fail, and we will then need to apply different methods.”
 
*X could represent huge, small, powerful etc..
 
 
I had a discussion about this with a friend Adam Karlovsky – and I was surprised when this just came up on my radar – it’s an interesting read.  We discussed the possibility that infinite randomness would produce an infinite amount of copies of Adam Karlovsky – doing an infinite amount of things.  He said that at one stage this thought kept him up at night.  I have had my doubts about the realism of infinity.

So what do you think?

Is Infinity Real?

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Should We Re-Engineer Ourselves to Phase Out our Violent Nature?

team-david-pearceDavid Pearce reflects on the motivation for human enhancement to phase out our violent nature. Do we want to perpetuate the states of experience which are beholden to our violent default biological imperatives .. or re-engineer ourselves?

Crudely speaking – and inevitably this is very crudely speaking – that nature designed men, males, to be hunters and warriors – and we still have to a very large degree a hunter/warrior psychology. This is why men are fascinated by conflict & violence – why we enjoy watching competitive sports.
Now although ordinary everyday life for many of us in the world is no longer involves the kind of endemic violence that was once the case (goodness knows how many deaths one will witness on screen in the course of a lifetime) one still enjoys violence and quite frequently watch men being very nasty towards each other – competing against each other.
Do we want to perpetuate these states of mind indefinitely? Or do we want to re-engineer ourselves?David Pearce

David-Pearce---Should-We-Re-Engineer-Ourselves-quote

Materialism vs Physicalism (and Strawsonian Physicalism) with David Pearce

team-david-pearceDavid Pearce (interviewed by Adam Ford) discusses the difference between Physicalism & Materialism – and also discusses Strawsonian Physicalism – the idea that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. May answer which breathes fire into the equations.
What makes our minds distinctive – isn’t that we are composed of novel stuff (along the conjecture that we everything is made up of fields of experience) – is that they support bound phenomenal consciousness. A Neurosurgeon may detect modules in the brain that are responsible for many things (vision processing, auditory perception, etc) but they can’t – for whatever reason – find that they are bound in phenomenal objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self.

 

Transcript

One reason that many philosophically literate scientists and scientifically literate philosophers describe themselves as ‘physicalists’ is that they recognize that – for example bosinic forcefields, dark matter, dark energy – aren’t matter in a conventional sense – nonetheless the positions are clearly (most philosophers and scientists would say are) close cousins.  But if we are to be physicalists in that sense – then the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ arises and in ‘explanatory gap’ and there doesn’t seem to be any way to accommodate consciousness within this explanatory theme.  But I think two separate claims need to be teased out from physicalism:
1) is the claim that physics discloses the actual nature of the stuff of the world – the fundamental entities – whether they are particles or fields or super-strings or branes.
2) the other is the claim that equations of physics and their solutions exhaustively describe the behavior of the stuff of the world
And they are distinct claims and should be separated because, for example a field in physics is defined purely mathematically and as the well known materialist – say outspoken materialist – like Stephen Hawking puts it quite poetically ‘We have no idea what breathes fire into the equations and makes there a universe for us to describe.  So, yes, one conjecture that we might call ‘Strawsonian Physicalsim‘ (after one of it’s best known proponents) is the idea that consciousness actually discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical – that is it possible consistently to maintain (that as Hawking would do) that we have no idea what breathes fire into the equations, and at the same time claim that this fire has no phenomenal properties – this is a particularly pertinent question given that the one part, the one tiny part, of the fire in the equations – the intrinsic essence of the stuff of the world which we do have access, namely our own minds – has properties that are at radically in-variance from what one might imagine on a standard materialist ontology.  And I would certainly argue that what makes our minds distinctive isn’t that we are composed of some novel kind of stuff – on the contrary that everything is ultimately fields of experience – but what makes our minds different I would say is that they support bound phenomenal consciousness – that a neurosurgeon that was inspecting your brain would reveal a distributively processed edges, textures, motions, colours etc in your brain – but somehow, for reasons that are not understood, the are bound into phenomenal objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self – you.  And so, yes, if one is a Strawsonian Physicalist – which of course is a very bold claim, this is not animism or vitalism, it’s not claiming rocks or chairs or tables or trees are subjects of experience or anything like that – it’s a conjecture about the fundamental stuff of the world – could it be fields of phenomenal simples that the equations of physics exhaustively describes?
And I see a progress in the problem of consciousness and explaining why we’re not zombies is going to come by solving the binding problem – but a precondition of solving the binding problem – I think – is to accept something like Strawsonian Physicalism.
Adam Ford: Ahh that’s interesting – you mention ‘fields of experience’ – would that be compatible with a ‘panpsychist’ view of universe?
david_pearceDavid Pearce: Yes, I think it’s – to some extent this is a stipulative definition – but I think it’s worth distinguishing panpsychism – the idea that, in some sense, experience is attached to the fundamental physical properties – all the fundamental physical properties of the world – and what sounds extremely similar to ‘idealism’ – the view that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, the intrinsic stuff of the world – so, yes there are clearly affinities between the two positions – but yes, it is in principle at any rate possible to reconcile physicalism and an ontology of idealism – so what we were discussing earlier on how physicalism and materialism  being cousins, in fact there is no need for them to be cousins at all. Because this is a very bold claim if one uses the term ‘idealism’ most people will think of bishop Barklay “to be is to be perceived” – that reality is somehow mind dependent. Or alternatively perhaps the idealism of the German school of idealists in the 18th & 19th century – but this particular conjecture, as I said – it’s physicalist that accepts that the formalism of physics – the mathematical straight jacket of theoretical physics – is complete, but claims that the actual intrinsic nature of the physical is experience in it’s most rudimentary sense – which is wildly counter-intuitive. But as long as even physicists won’t claim that they know the intrinsic nature of the fire in the equasions – Kant’s Noumenal Essence of the world so to speak – then it’s very much up for grabs – and we know that something must be wrong with our conceptual scheme because currently we are quite incapable of explaining consciousness within a materialist framework.

Watch the interview with David Pearce video here.

Physicalistic Idealism
Does reductive physicalism entail monistic idealism?
A testable conjecture about the nature of the physical world.

Natural science promises a complete story of the world. No “element of reality” should be missing from the mathematical formalism of physics, i.e. relativistic quantum field theory or its more speculative extensions. The Standard Model is extraordinarily well tested. Within its conceptual framework, consciousness would seem not only causally impotent but physically impossible. Hence the “Explanatory Gap” and the Hard Problem of consciousness.

In recent years, a minority of researchers have proposed that the Hard Problem may be an artifact of materialist metaphysics. Contra Kant, but following Schopenhauer, Russell, Lockwood, Strawson, et al., the new idealists conjecture that the phenomenology of one’s mind reveals the intrinsic nature of the physical – the elusive “fire” in the equations about which physics is silent. Our ordinary presupposition that the intrinsic character of the physical is devoid of phenomenal properties is an additional metaphysical assumption. This is hugely plausible, for sure, but not a scientific discovery. Perhaps most tellingly, the only part of the “fire” in the equations to which one ever enjoys direct access, i.e. one’s own consciousness, discloses phenomenal properties that are inconsistent with a materialist ontology.

David Pearce - Healesville SanctuaryUntestability cuts both ways. Any conjecture that the world’s fundamental quantum fields – and, presumably, fundamental macroscopic quantum phenomena such as superconductors or superfluid helium – are intrinsically experiential would seem unfalsifiable too: just speculative metaphysics.

Rather surprisingly, we shall see this isn’t the case.

http://www.hedweb.com/physicalism/

Also of interest is John Wilkins on Materialism & Physicalism.

Video Interviews
For more video interviews please Subscribe to Adam Ford’s YouTube Channel

Peter Singer & David Pearce on Utilitarianism, Bliss & Suffering

Moral philosophers Peter Singer & David Pearce discuss some of the long term issues with various forms of utilitarianism, the future of predation and utilitronium shockwaves.

Topics Covered

Peter Singer

– long term impacts of various forms of utilitarianism
– Consciousness
– Artificial Intelligence
– Reducing suffering in the long run and in the short term
– Practical ethics
– Pre-implantation genetic screening to reduce disease and low mood
– Lives today are worth the same as lives in the future – though uncertainty must be brought to bear in deciding how one weighs up the importance of life
– The Hedonistic Imperative and how people react to it
– Correlation to high hedonic set points with productivity
existential risks and global catastrophic risks
– Closing factory farms

David Pearce

– Veganism and reducitarianism
– Red meat vs white meat – many more chickens are killed per ton of meat than beef
– Valence research
– Should one eliminate the suffering? And should we eliminate emotions of happiness?
– How can we answer the question of how far suffering is present in different life forms (like insects)?

Talk of moral progress can make one sound naive. But even the darkest cynic should salute the extraordinary work of Peter Singer to promote the interests of all sentient beings.David Pearce
 

 

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Is there a Meaningful Future for Non-Optimal Moral Agents?

In an interview last year, I had a discussion with John Danaher on the Hedonistic Imperative & Superintelligence – a concern he has with HI is that it denies or de-emphasises some kind of moral agency – in moral theory there is a distinction between moral agents (being a responsible actor able to make moral decisions, influence direction of moral progress, shapes its future, and owes duties to others) and moral patients who may be deemed to have limited or no grounds for moral agency/autonomy/responsibility – they are simply a recipient of moral benefits – in contrast to humans, animals could be classified as moral patients – (see Stanford writing on Grounds for Moral Status).

As time goes on, the notion of strong artificial intelligence leading to Superintelligence (which may herald in something like an Intelligence Explosion) and ideas like the hedonistic imperative becomes less sensational sci-fi concepts and more like visions of realizable eventualities. Thinking about moral endpoints comes to me a paradoxical feeling of triumph and disempowerment.

John’s concern is that ensuring the well-being of humans (conscious entities) is consistent with denying their moral agency – minimizing their capacity to act – that there is a danger that the outcome of HI or an Intelligence Explosion may result in sentient life being made very happy forever, but unable to make choices – with a focus on a future entirely based on bliss whilst ignoring other aspects of what makes for a valuable or worthwhile existence.

Artificial Heart chipsSo even if we have a future where a) we are made very happy and b) we are subject to a wide variety of novelty (which I argue for in Novelty Utilitarianism) without some kind of self-determination we may not be able to enjoy part of what arguably makes for a worthwhile existence.

If the argument for moral agency is completely toppled by the argument against free will then I can see why there would be no reason for it – and that bliss/novelty may be enough – though I personally haven’t been convinced that this is the case.

Also the idea that moral agency and novelty should be ranked as auxiliary aspects to the main imperative of reducing suffering/increasing bliss seems problematic – I get the sense that they (agency/novelty) could easily be swapped out for most non-optimal moral agents in the quest for -suffering/+bliss troublesome.
The idea that upon evaluating grounds for moral status, our ethical/moral quotient may not match or even come close to a potential ethical force of a superintelligence is also troubling. If we are serious about the best ethical outcomes, when the time comes, should we be committed to resigning all moral agency to agents that are more adept at producing peek moral outcomes?
ancillary-one-esk-glitchIs it really possible for non-optimal agents to have a meaningful moral input in a universe where they’ve been completely outperformed by moral machines? Is a life of novelty & bliss the most optimal outcome we can hope for?

There probably should be some more discussion on trade-offs between moral agency, peek experience and novelty.

Discussion in this video here starts at 24:02

Below is the whole interview with John Danaher:

Wireheading with David Pearce

Is the Hedonistic Imperative equivalent to wire-heading?
People are often concerned about the future being a cyber-puink dystopia where people are hard wired into pleasure centers like smacked out like lotus eating milk-sops devoid of meaningful existence. Does David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative entail a future where we are all in thrall to permanent experiential orgasms – intravenously hotwired into our pleasure centers via some kind of soma like drug turning us into blissful-idiots?

Adam Ford: I think some people often conflate or distill the Hedonistic Imperative to mean ‘wireheading’ – what do you (think)?

David Pearce: Yes, I mean, clearly if one does argue that were going to phase out the biology of suffering and live out lives of perpetual bliss then it’s very natural to assimilate this to something like ‘wireheading’ – but for all sorts of reasons I don’t think wireheading (i.e. intercrainial self-stimulation of the reward centers and it’s pharmacological equivalent) is a plausible scenario for our future. Not least there will presumably always be selection pressure against wireheading – wireheads do not want to have baby wireheads and raise wirehead children.
I think a much more credible scenario is the idea that were going to re-calibrate the hedonic treadmill and allow ourselves and our future children to enjoy lives based on gradients of intelligent bliss. And one of the advantages of re-calibration rather than straight forward hedonic maximization is that by urging recalibration one isn’t telling people they ought to be giving up their existing preferences or values is that if your hedonic set-point (i.e. your average state of wellbeing) is much higher than it is now your quality wireheads - white of life will really be much higher – but it doesn’t involve any sacrifice of the values you hold most dear.
As a rather simplistic way of putting it – clearly where one lies basically on the hedonic axis will impose serious cognitive biases (i.e. someone who is let’s say depressive or prone to low mood) at least will have a very different set of biases from someone who is naturally cheerful. But none-the-less it doesn’t entail, so long as we aim for a motivational architecture of gradients of bliss, it doesn’t entail giving up anything you want to hold onto. I think that’s really important because a lot of people will be worried that somehow that if, yes, we do enter into some kind of secular paradise – it will involve giving up their normal relationships, their ordinary values and what they hold most dear. Re-calibration does not entail this (wireheading).

Adam Ford: That’s interesting – people think that you know as soon as you turn on the Hedonistic Imperative you are destined for a very narrow set of values – that could be just one peek experience being replayed over and over again – in some narrow local maximum.

wirehead-utility-function-hijacking1024x448David Pearce: Yes – I suppose one thinks of (kind of) crazed wirehead rats – in fairness, if one does imagine orgasmic bliss most people don’t complain that their orgasms are too long (and I’m not convinced that there is something desperately wrong with orgasmic bliss that lasts weeks, months, years or even centuries) but one needs to examine the wider sociological picture – and ask ‘is it really sustainable for us to become blissed out as distinct form blissful’.

Adam Ford: Right – and by blissed out you mean something like the lotus eaters found in Odysseus?

David Pearce: Yes, I mean clearly it is one version of paradise and bliss – they call it meditative tranquility (not doing anything) – but there are other versions of bliss in which one is hyper-motivated. It seems that, crudely speaking, motivation (which is mediated by the meso-limbic dopamene system) and raw bliss (which is associated with mu-opiod activation of our twin hedonic-hotspots) – the axis are orthogonal. Now they’re very closely interrelated (thanks to natural selection) – but in principle we can amplify one or damp down the other. Empirically, at any rate it seems to be the case today that the happiest people are also the most motivated – they have the greatest desires – I mean, this runs counter to the old buddhist notion that desire is suffering – but if you actually look at people who are depressive or chronically depressed quite frequently they have an absence of desire or motivation. But the point is we should be free to choose – yes it is potentially hugely liberatery – this control over our reward architecture, our pleasure circuitry that biotechnology offers – but let’s get things right. We don’t want to mess things up and produce the equivalent of large numbers of people on Heroin – and this is why I so strenuously urge the case for re-calibration – in the long run genetically, in the short run by various no-recreational drugs.

Clearly it is one version of paradise and bliss – they call it meditative tranquility (not doing anything) – but there are other versions of bliss in which one is hyper-motivated.David Pearce

Adam Ford: Ok… People may be worried that re-calibrating someone is akin to disrupting the continuum of self (or this enduring metaphysical ego) – so the person at the other end wouldn’t be really a continuation of the person at the beginning. What do you think? How would you respond to that sort of criticism?

wireheading - static David PearceDavid Pearce: It depends how strict ones conception of what personal identity is. Now, would you be worried if to learn tomorrow that you had won the national lottery (for example)? It would transform your lifestyle, your circle of friends – would this trigger the anxiety that the person who was living the existence of a multi-millionaire wasn’t really you? Well perhaps you should perhaps you should be worried about this – but on the whole most people would be relatively relaxed at the prospect. I would see this more as akin to a small child growing up – yes in one sense as one becomes a mature adult one has killed the toddler or lost the essence of what it was to be a toddler – but only in a very benign sense. And by aiming for re-calibration and hedonic enrichment rather than maximization, there is much less of a risk of loosing anything that you think is really valuable or important.

Adam Ford: Okay – well that’s interesting – we’ll talk about value. In order to not loose forms of value – even if you don’t use it (the values) much – you might have some values that you leave up in the attic to gather dust – like toys that you don’t play with anymore – but you might want to pick up once in a thousand years or what not. How do you then preserve complexity of value while also achieving high hedonic states – do you think they can go hand in hand? Or do you think preserving complexity of value reduces the likelihood that you will be able to achieve optimal hedonic states?

David Pearce: As an empirical matter – and I stress empirical here – it seems to be the case that the happiest are responsive to the broadest possible range of rewarding stimuli – it tends to be depressives who get stuck in a rut. So other things being equal – by re-calibrating ourselves, becoming happy and then superhappy – we can potentially at any rate, yes, enrich the complexity of our lives with a range of rewarding stimuli – it makes getting stuck in a rut less likely both for the individual and for civilization as a whole.
I think one of the reasons we are afraid of some kind of loss of complexity is that the idea of heaven – including in traditional christian heaven – it can sound a bit monotonous, and for happy people at least one of the experiences they find most unpleasant is boredom. But essentially it should be a matter of choice – yes, someone who is very happy to, let’s say, listen to a piece of music or contemplate or art, should be free to do so, and not forced into leading a very complex or complicated life – but equally folk who want to do a diverse range of things – well that’s feasible too.

For all sorts of reasons I don’t think wireheading… is a plausible scenario for our future. Not least there will presumably always be selection pressure against wireheading – wireheads do not want to have baby wireheads and raise wirehead children.David Pearce

– video/audio interview continues on past 10:00

The Knowledge Argument Applied to Ethics

A group of interested AI enthusiasts have been discussing Engineering Machine Consciousness in Melbourne for over a decade. In a recent interview with Jamais Cascio on Engineering Happy People & Global Catastrophic Risks, we discussed the benefits of amplifying empathy without the nasty side effects (possibly through cultural progress or technological intervention – a form of moral enhancement). I have been thinking further about how an agent might think and act differently if it had no ‘raw feels’ – any self-intimating conscious experience.

I posted to the Hedonistic Imperative Facebook group:

Is the limitations of empathy in humans distracting us from the in principle benefits of empathy?
The side effects of empathy in humans include increased distrust of the outgroup – and limitations in the amount of people we humans can feel strong empathy for – though in principle the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective seems quite useful – at least while we are still motivated by our experience.
But what of the future? Are our post human descendants likely to be motivated by their ‘experiences of’ as well as their ‘knowledge about’ in making choices regarding others and about the trajectories of civilizational progress?

I wonder whether all the experiences of can be understood in terms of knowledge about – can the whole of ethics be explained without being experienced – though knowledge about without any experience of? Reminds me of the Mary’s Room/Knowledge Argument* thought experiment. I leaned towards the position that Mary could with a fully working knowledge of the visual system and relevant neuroscience wouldn’t ‘learn’ anything new when walking outside the grey-scale room and into the colourful world outside.
Imagine an adaptation of the Mary’s Room thought experiment – for the time being let’s call it Autistic Savant Angela’s Condition – in that:

class 1

Angela is a brilliant ethicist and neuroscientist (an expert in bioethics, neuroethics etc), whom (for whatever reason) is an Autistic savant with congenital insensitivity to pain and pleasure – she can’t at all feel pain, suffering or experience what it is like to be someone else who does experience pain or suffering – she has no intuition of ethics. Throughout her whole life she has been forced to investigate the field of ethics and the concepts of pleasure, bliss, pain and suffering through theory alone. She has a complete mechanical understanding of empathy, and brain states of subjects participating on various trolley thought experiments, hundreds of permutations of Milgrim experiments, is an expert in philosophies of ethics from Aristotle to Hume to Sidgwick etc. Suddenly there is a medical breakthrough in gene-therapy that would guarantee normal human function to feel without impairing cognitive ability at all. If Angela were to undergo this gene-therapy, would she learn anything more about ethics?

class 2

Same as above except Angela has no concept of other agents.

class 3

Same as class 2 except Angela is a superintelligent AI, and instead of gene-therapy, the AI recieves a software/hardware upgrade that allows the AI access to ‘fire in the equations’, to experience. Would the AI learn anything more about ethics? Would it act in a more ethical way? Would it produce more ethical outcomes?

 

Implications

Should an effective altruist support a completely dispassionate approach to cause prioritization?

If we were to build an ethical superintelligence – would having access to visceral experiences (i.e. pain/pleasure) change it’s ethical outcomes?
If a superintelligence were to perform Coherent Extrapolated Volition, or Coherent Aggregated Volition, would the kind of future which it produced differ if it could experience? Would likelihoods of various ethical outcomes change?

Is experience required to fully understand ethics? Is experience required to effectively implement ethics?
Robo Brain

 

footnotes

The Knowledge Argument Thought Experiment

jacksons-knowledge-argumentMary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

The Life You Can Save – Interview with Peter Singer by Adam Ford

Transcript of interview with Peter Singer on ‘The Life You Can Save‘:

The Life You Can Save Amazon 41Cnq4M0rzL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been writing & thinking about the question of global poverty and what affluent people ought to do about it for more than four years now. The first article I published on that ‘Famine Affluence & Morality’ came out in 1972.
But I’d never written a book on that topic until a few years ago when I was encouraged by greater interest in the question of global poverty and greater interest in the question of the obligations of the affluent, and some very positive responses I had to an article that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. So it was then that I decided that it was time for a book on this topic – I wrote “The Life You Can Save” which came out in 2009 – essentially to encourage people to think that – if you really want to think of yourself as ethical – you want to say “I’m an ethical person, I’m living an ethical life” – it’s not enough to say “I don’t kill.. I don’t steal.. I don’t cheat.. I don’t assault people..” and so on and all those sorts of ‘thou shalt not’ kind of commands – but if you are an affluent person, or even just a middle class person in an affluent country (that’s undoubtedly affluent by global standards) then you’re not really living an ethical life unless you’re prepared to share some of the good fortune that you have with people who are less fortunate – and you know, just the fact that you are able to live in an affluent country means that you are fortunate.
One of the points that I try to emphasize is that the differences in the amount of wealth that people who are middle class or above in affluent societies as compared to people in extreme poverty have is so great that things that are really pretty frivolous in our lives (that we spend money on that are not significant) could make a difference in the lives of other people. So, we spend money on all kinds of things from going to a cafe and having coffee or buying a bottle of water when we could drink water out of a tap, to going on vacations, making sure we have the latest iPhones – a whole lot of different things that really are not at all life changing to us. But the amount that we spend on those things could be life changing to people in extreme poverty who are not able to afford minimal health care for themselves or their family, who don’t get enough to eat, to perhaps are not able to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields – a whole of different things that we can help people with.
I think we ought to be helping – I think to do nothing is wrong. Now, you can then debate “well, how much ought we to be doing?” which is something I do discuss in the book – but I think that it’s clear that we ought to be setting aside some of what we have to donate to organizations that are effective and that have been proven to be effective in helping the global poor.
So that’s really what the book is about – and perhaps the other thing I ought to say is that many people feel that somehow world poverty is like a bottomless pit that we are pouring money down into – but I think that’s a mistake – I think that it’s clear that we are making a difference – that we’ve dramatically reduced the number of people who die from preventable poverty related illnesses. Even just since my book as been published (in the last 5 years for instance) the number people – the number of children who die each year (children under 5) has dropped from nearly 10 million a year to 6.6 million a year – so, you know, that real progress in just 5 years – and we can make progress with poverty if we are careful about the way in which we do it and fund organizations that are open to evidence about what works and what doesn’t.

Many people feel that somehow world poverty is like a bottomless pit that we are pouring money down into – but I think that’s a mistake – I think that it’s clear that we are making a difference.

Peter Singer – The Life You Can Save – Video inteview by Adam Ford


The Life You Can Save

Acting Now to End World Poverty is a 2009 book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. The author argues that citizens of affluent nations are behaving immorally if they do not act to end the poverty they know to exist in developing nations.

The book is focused on giving to charity, and discusses philosophical considerations, describes practical and psychological obstacles to giving, and lists available resources for prospective donors (e.g. charity evaluators). Singer concludes the book by proposing a minimum ethical standard of giving.

Christian Barry and Gerhard Overland (both from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics) described the widespread acceptance for the notion that “the lives of all people everywhere are of equal fundamental worth when viewed impartially”. They then wonder, during the book review in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, why “the affluent do so little, and demand so little of their governments, while remaining confident that they are morally decent people who generally fulfil their duties to others?” The reviewers agree with Singer, and say they see a conflict between the behaviours of the affluent and the claims of the affluent to being morally decent people. The reviewers also discuss other practical ways to fight poverty.

Support The Life You Can SaveHistorically, every dollar donated to The Life You Can Save typically moves an additional three to four dollars to our effective charities. Our recommended charities provide services and support to men, women, and children in needy communities across the globe. Your support for our work means that you'll get the most out of your charitable giving!

Can I Really Save Lives?  The good news, in fact the great news, is that you can! While there are endless problems in the world that you as an individual cannot solve, you can actually save lives and reduce unnecessary suffering and premature death. Should you do it? Watch this video and decide for yourself. The information on our website can help you give most effectively to become a life saver.

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Philosophy & Effective Altruism – Peter Singer, David Pearce, Justin Oakley, Hilary Greaves

Panelists ([from left to right] Hilary Greaves, Peter Singer, Justin Oakley & David Pearce) discuss what they believe are important philosophical aspects of the Effective Altruism movement – from practical philosophy we can use today to possible endpoints implied by various frameworks in applied ethics. The panelists navigate through a wide range of fascinating and important topics that aspiring effective altruists and anyone whom is philosophically inclined will find both useful and enjoyable.

Panel moderated by Kerry Vaughan.

Panel Transcript

(in progress)

0:35 Question “What are the hot topics in philosophy that might change what effective altruists might focus on?”
Hilary Greaves – So, my answer to that – the one I’m most directly familiar with is the one I already mentioned in my talk earlier. I think that population ethics can make a massive difference to a significant proportion of the things we should worry about as EAs. In particular, the thing that gives rise to this is the situation where – at the moment we have lots of moral philosophers who really like their ivory tower abstract theorising – those people have done a lot of discussing this abstract question of ‘ok what is my theory of population ethics’ – then at the real world extreme we have lots of people engaging directly with the real world issues thinking, ok, how should we do our cost-benefit analysis, for example family planning. We have a big gap in the middle – we don’t really have a well developed community of people are both in touch with the background moral philosophy and who are interested in applying it to the real world. So because there is that gap I think there’s a lot of low hanging fruit at the moment for people who have a background in moral philosophy and who are also plugged into the EA community to build these bridges from theory to practise and see what it all means for the real world.

01:56 Peter Singer – I actually agree with that – that population ethics is an important area – and another place that connects to what Hilary was talking about earlier is for the existential risk questions. Because, we need to think about – suppose that the world were destroyed – is what’s so bad about that the fact that 7.5 people have lost their lives or is it the loss of the untold billions of people that Nick Bostrom has (10^56 or something, I don’t know – some vastly unimaginable number) of possible future lives that could have been good, and that would be lost. So that seems to me to be a real issue. If you want something that’s a little more nitty gritty towards what we are talking about today – another issue is – how do we get a grip on the nature and extent of animal suffering? (something that we will be talking a bit about in a moment) It’s really just hard to say – David just talked about factory farming and the vast amount of billions of animals suffering in factory farms – and I totally agree that this is a top priority issue – but in terms of assessing priorities, how do we compare the suffering of a chicken in a factory farm to, let’s say, a mother who has to watch her child dying of malaria? Is there some way we can get a better handle on that?

03:23 Justin Oakley – For me, I think, one of the key issues in ethics at the moment that bears on Effective Altruism at the moment is what’s known as a ‘situationists critique of virtue ethics’ – so trying to understand not only on how having a better character helps people to act well but also what environment they are in. Subtle environmental influences that might either support or subvert a person acting well – in particular having the virtue perhaps of liberality – so there is lots of interesting work being done on that – some people think that debate is beginning to die down – but it seems to be just starting up again with a couple of new books that are coming out looking at a new twist on that. So for me, I’m keen to do that – I guess my own work at Monash I teach a lot of health professionals so keen to look at what environmental influences there are on doctors that impede them having a theraputic relationship on patients – not only thinking about how to help them be more virtuous – I suppose which is not the only thing I aim to do with the doctors that I teach but I hope to have that influence to some extent.

Panel Greaves Singer Oakley Pearce - Orgasmatronium - 1

The Utilitarianism at the End of the Universe – Panelists Hilary Greaves, Peter Singer, Justin Oakley & David Pearce laugh about the possible ‘end games’ of classical utilitarianism.

04:25 David Pearce – Yes well I’m perhaps slightly out of touch now with analytic philosophy – but one issue that I haven’t really seen tackled by analytic philosophy is this disguised implication of classical utilitarianism of what we ought to be doing, which is essentially optimising matter and energy throughout the world – and perhaps the accessible universe – for maximum bliss. A questioner earlier was asking ‘Well, as a negative utilitarian, do you accept this apparent counter-intuitive consequence that one ought to wipe out the world to prevent the suffering of one person.’ But if one is a classical utilitarian then it seems to be a disguised consequence that it’s not good enough to aim merely for a civilization in which all sentient beings could flourish and enjoy gradients of intelligent bliss – instead one must go on remorselessly to when matter and energy is nothing but pure orgasmic bliss.
05:35 Peter Singer – I find it a remorseless and unusual term to describe it
[laughter…] 5:40 David Pearce – Well, I think this is actually rather an appealing idea to me but I know not everyone shares this intuition
[laughter…] 5:50 Question “So Peter I’d be interested to know if you have thoughts on whether you think that’s an implication of classical utilitarianism” – Peter Singer – If I accept that implication? Well – David and I talked about this a little bit earlier over lunch – I sort of, I guess, maybe I accept it but I have difficulty in grasping what it is to talk about converting matter and energy into bliss – unless we assume that there are going to be conscious minds that are going to be experiencing this bliss. And, of course then David would then very strongly agree that conscious minds not only have to experience bliss but also not experience any suffering certainly, presumably minimize anything that they experience other than bliss (because that’s not converting matter and energy into bliss) – so if what I’m being asked to imagine is a universe with a vast number of conscious minds that are experiencing bliss – yeah, maybe I do accept that implication.

06:43 Question “So this is a question mostly for Justin – effective altruists often talk about doing the ‘most good’ – should EAs be committed to doing ‘enough good’ instead of the ‘most good’?”

Justin Oakley – Yeah, that’s a good question to ask – one of the thinks I didn’t emphasize in my talk on virtue ethics is that standardly virtue ethics thinks that we should strive to be an excellent human being, which can fall a little way short of producing the maximum good.  So if you produce an excellent level of liberality or perhaps good or benefit to someone else then that’s enough for virtue.  I guess in some of the examples I was giving in my talk you might choose a partner who – although you’re not the ultimate power couple (you are the sub-optimal power couple) but you are none the less attracted to that other person very strongly – from the perspective of effective altruism it might sound like you are doing the wrong thing – but intuitively it doesn’t seem to be wrong.  That’s one example.

07:51 Hilary Graves – Surely, I mean – something I can say a bit about a similar issue looks like from a more consequentialist perspective – when people think of consequentialism they sometimes assume that consequentialists think that there is a moral imperative to maximize it – you absolutely have to do the most good and anything less than that is wrong.  But it’s worth emphasising that not all consequentialists emphasise that at all – not all consequentialists think that it’s even helpful to buy into this language of right and wrong.  So you don’t have to be a virtue ethicist to somewhat feel alienated from a moral imperative to do the absolute most good – you could just think something like the following: never mind right and wrong, never mind what I should vs not allowed to be doing.  I might just want to make the world better – I might just think I could order all the things I could possibly do in terms of better or worse.   And then you know, if I give away 1% of my income, that’s better thank giving away nothing – if I give 5% that’s better than giving away 1% – if I give away 50% that’s better than anything less – but I don’t have to impose some sharp cutoff and say that I’m doing something morally wrong if I give less than that – I think if we think in this way then we tend to alienate both ourselves and other people less – there’s something very alienating about holding up a very high standard and saying that anybody including ourselves who is falling short of this very high standard is doing something wrong with a capital ‘R’.

Panel including Peter Singer

09.14 Peter Singer – So, in a way I agree – you are talking about a spectrum view (of where we have a spectrum of black to white – or maybe we don’t want to use those terms for it) from one end to the other and you’re somewhere on the spectrum and you try and work your way further up the spectrum perhaps – which, I’m reasonably comfortable with that.  Another way of looking at it (and this goes back to something that Sidgewick also said) is that we ought to be clearer about distinguishing when we regard the act as the right act or the wrong act and when we regard it appropriate to praise or blame people for doing it.  And these are really separate things – especially if you are a consequentialist because praising or blaming someone is an act – and you ought to only do that if it will have good consequences.  So I suppose that we think that somebody in particular personal circumstances ought to  be giving 50% of his earnings away – but he is only giving 10% – but he is living in a society like ours in which by giving 10% he is at the top 99.99% of what people are giving.  Well to blame him saying ‘oh well your only giving 10% – you should be giving more’ looks like it’s going to be very counter productive – you really want to praise him in front of other people so that more people will give 10%.  So I think if we understand it that way that’s another way of looking at it – I’m not sure if it’s nesseccarily better than the spectrum view that you [Hilary] was suggesting – but it is another way of, if you like, softening this black white morality idea that is either is right or is wrong.

10:54 Question “A question for Hilary – You mention that one might find the ‘uncertainty’ that your talk generates kind of paralyzing – but you mention that wasn’t your conclusion – can you expland on why this is (paralyzation) not your conclusion?”
Hilary Greaves

 

  • Transcribed by Adam Ford

Biographies

Hilary Greaves - LectureHilary Greaves is an Associate Professor in Philosophy, at Somerville College in the University of Oxford. My current research focusses on various issues in ethics. Hilary’s interests include: foundational issues in consequentialism (‘global’ and ‘two-level’ forms of consequentialism), the debate between consequentialists and contractualists, aggregation (utilitarianism, prioritarianism and egalitarianism), moral psychology and selective debunking arguments, population ethics, the interface between ethics and economics, the analogies between ethics and epistemology, and formal epistemology. Hilary currently (2014-17) directs the project Population Ethics: Theory and Practice, based at the Future of Humanity Institute, and funded by The Leverhulme Trust.

Peter Singer - Non-Human Animal Ethics - EA Global Melbourne 2015Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He specializes in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, utilitarian perspective.  He is known in particular for his book, Animal Liberation (1975), a canonical text in animal rights/liberation theory. For most of his career, he supported preference utilitarianism, but in his later years became a classical or hedonistic utilitarian, when co-authoring The Point of View of the Universe with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek.

Justin Oakley - Virtue & Effective Altruism - EA Global Melbourne 2015Justin Oakley is an Associate Professor at Monash University – the School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies, and Centre for Human Bioethics. Justin has been part of the revival of the ethical doctrine known as virtue ethics, an Aristotelian doctrine which has received renewed interest in the past few decades.  Oakley is particularly well known for his work on professional ethics and also the so-called ‘problem’ of friendship. The problem of friendship looks at how a strict application of impartialist ethical doctrines, such as utilitarianism and Kantianism, conflicts with our notions of friendship or ‘true friendship’.

David PearceDavid Pearce is a British philosopher who promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as “paradise engineering”.