“Immortality is cool and all, but our universe is going to run down from entropy eventually”
I consider this argument wrong for two reasons. The first is the obvious reason, which is that even if immortality is impossible, it’s still better to live for a long time.
The second reason why I think this argument is wrong is because I’m currently convinced that literal physical immortality is possible in our universe. Usually when I say this out loud I get an audible “what” or something to that effect, but I’m not kidding.
It’s going to be hard to explain my intuitions for why I think real immortality is possible, so bear with me. First, this is what I’m not saying:
I’m not saying that we can outlast the heat death of the universe somehow
I’m not saying that we just need to shift our conception of immortality to be something like, “We live in the hearts of our countrymen” or anything like that.
I’m not saying that I have a specific plan for how to become immortal personally, and
I’m not saying that my proposal has no flaws whatsoever and that this is a valid line of research to be conducting at the moment.
So what am I saying?
A typical model of our life as humans is that we are something like a worm in 4 dimensional space. On one side of the worm there’s our birth, and on the other side of the worm is our untimely death. We ‘live through’ this worm, and that is our life. The length of our life is measured by considering the length of the worm in 4 dimensional space, measured just like a yardstick.
Now just change the perspective a little bit. If we could somehow abandon our current way of living, then maybe we can alter the geometry of this worm so that we are immortal. Consider: a circle has no starting point and no end. If someone could somehow ‘live through’ a circle, then their life would consist of an eternal loop through experiences, repeating endlessly.
The idea is that we somehow construct a physical manifestation of this immortality circle. I think of it like an actual loop in 4 dimensional space because it’s difficult to visualize without an analogy. A superintelligence could perhaps predict what type of actions would be necessary to construct this immortal loop. And once it is constructed, it’ll be there forever.
From an outside view in our 3d mind’s eye, the construction of this loop would look very strange. It could look like something popping into existence suddenly and getting larger, and then suddenly popping out of existence. I don’t really know; that’s just the intuition.
What matters is that within this loop someone will be living their life on repeat. True Déjà vu. Each moment they live is in their future, and in their past. There are no new experiences and no novelty, but the superintelligence can construct it so that this part is not unenjoyable. There would be no right answer to the question “how old are you.” And in my view, it is perfectly valid to say that this person is truly, actually immortal.
Perhaps someone who valued immortality would want one of these loops to be constructed for themselves. Perhaps for some reason constructing one of these things is impossible in our universe (though I suspect that it’s not). There are anthropic reasons that I have considered for why constructing it might not be worth it… but that would be too much to go into for this shortform post.
To close, I currently see no knockdown reasons to believe that this sort of scheme is impossible.
Thanks for engaging with me on this thing. :)
I know I’m not being as clear as I could possibly be, and at some points I sort of feel like just throwing “Quining Qualia” or Keith Frankish’s articles or a whole bunch of other blog posts at people and say, “Please just read this and re-read it until you have a very distinct intuition about what I am saying.” But I know that that type of debate is not helpful.
I think I have a OK-to-good understanding of what you are saying. My model of your reply is something like this,
“Your claim is that qualia don’t exist because nothing with these three properties exists (ineffability/private/intrinsic), but it’s not clear to me that these three properties are universally identified with qualia. When I go to Wikipedia or other sources, they usually identify qualia with ‘what it’s like’ rather than these three very specific things that Daniel Dennett happened to list once. So, I still think that I am pointing to something real when I talk about ‘what it’s like’ and you are only disputing a perhaps-strawman version of qualia.”
Please correct me if this model of you is inaccurate.
I recognize what you are saying, and I agree with the place you are coming from. I really do. And furthermore, I really really agree with the idea that we should go further than skepticism and we should always ask more questions even after we have concluded that something doesn’t exist.
However, the place I get off the boat is where you keep talking about how this ‘what it’s like’ thing is actually referring to something coherent in the real world that has a crisp, natural boundary around it. That’s the disagreement.
I don’t think it’s an accident of history either that those properties are identified with qualia. The whole reason Daniel Dennett identified them was because he showed that they were the necessary conclusion of the sort of thought experiments people use for qualia. He spends the whole first several paragraphs justifying them using various intuition pumps in his essay on the matter.
Point being, when you are asked to clarify what ‘what it’s like’ means, you’ll probably start pointing to examples. Like, you might say, “Well, I know what it’s like to see the color green, so that’s an example of a quale.” And Daniel Dennett would then press the person further and go, “OK could you clarify what you mean when you say you ‘know what it’s like to see green’?” and the person would say, “No, I can’t describe it using words. And it’s not clear to me it’s even in the same category of things that can be either, since I can’t possibly conceive of an English sentence that would describe the color green to a blind person.” And then Daniel Dennett would shout, “Aha! So you do believe in ineffability!”
The point of those three properties (actually he lists 4, I think), is not that they are inherently tied to the definition. It’s that the definition is vague, and every time people are pressed to be more clear on what they mean, they start spouting nonsense. Dennett did valid and good deconfusion work where he showed that people go wrong in these four places, and then showed how there’s no physical thing that could possibly allow those four things.
These properties also show up all over the various thought experiments that people use when talking about qualia. For example, Nagel uses the private property in his essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” Chalmers uses the intrinsic property when he talks about p-zombies being physically identical to humans in every respect except for qualia. Frank Jackson used the ineffability property when he talked about how Mary the neuroscientist had something missing when she was in the black and white room.
All of this is important to recognize. Because if you still want to say, “But I’m still pointing to something valid and real even if you want to reject this other strawman-entity” then I’m going to treat you like the person who wants to believe in souls even after they’ve been shown that nothing soul-like exists in this universe.
If you identify qualia as behavioral parts of our physical models, then are you also willing to discard the properties philosophers have associated with qualia, such as
Ineffable, as they can’t be explained using just words or mathematical sentences
Private, as they are inaccessible to outside third-person observers
Intrinsic, as they are fundamental to the way we experience the world
If you are willing to discard these properties, then I suggest we stop using the world “qualia” since you have simply taken all the meaning away once you have identified them with things that actually exist. This is what I mean when I say that I am denying qualia.
It is analogous to someone who denies that souls exist by first conceding that we could identify certain physical configurations as examples of souls, but then explaining that this would be confusing to anyone who talks about souls in the traditional sense. Far better in my view to discard the idea altogether.
You’re right. I initially put this in the answer category, but I really meant it as clarification. I assumed that the personal question was more important since the humanity question is not very useful (except maybe to governments and large corporations).
I guess the question boils down to the choice of reference classes, so what makes the reference class “early 21st century humans” so special?
One very speculative reason why it might be worth modeling 21st century humanity is that this century could be a pivotal period in civilizational development. This might be useful because it provides insight into what sort of value systems end up getting “locked in” after this stage of our development concludes.
Roughly speaking, given that the future civilization could determine the distribution of value systems that are eventually optimized by civilizations at our stage of development, they could use this information to predict what type of stuff is being optimized throughout the multiverse. This is helpful because it allows the future civilization to cooperate with other civilizations in the multiverse, which is probably useful if the civilization cares about more than just astronomical waste.
Will Lesswrong at some point have curated shortform posts? Furthermore, is such a feature desirable? I will leave this question here for discussion.
I generally agree with the heuristic that we should “live on the mainline”, meaning that we should mostly plan for events which capture the dominant share of our probability. This heuristic causes me to have a tendency to do some of the following things
Work on projects that I think have a medium-to-high chance of succeeding and quickly abandon things that seem like they are failing.
Plan my career trajectory based on where I think I can plausibly maximize my long term values.
Study subjects only if I think that I will need to understand them at some point in order to grasp an important concept. See more details here.
Avoid doing work that leverages small probabilities of exceptionally bad outcomes. For example, I don’t focus my studying on worst-case AI safety risk (although I do think that analyzing worst-case failure modes is useful from the standpoint of a security mindset).
I see a few problems with this heuristic, however, and I’m not sure quite how to resolve them. More specifically, I tend to float freely between different projects because I am quick to abandon things if I feel like they aren’t working out (compare this to the mindset that some game developers have when they realize their latest game idea isn’t very good).
One case where this shows up is when I change my beliefs about where the most effective ways to spend my time as far as long-term future scenarios are concerned. I will sometimes read an argument about how some line of inquiry is promising and for an entire day believe that this would be a good thing to work on, only for the next day to bring another argument.
And things like my AI timeline predictions vary erratically, much more than I expect most people’s: I sometimes wake up and think that AI might be just 10 years away and other days I wake up and wonder if most of this stuff is more like a century away.
This general behavior makes me into someone who doesn’t stay consistent on what I try to do. My life therefore resembles a battle between two competing heuristics: on one side there’s the heuristic of planning for the mainline, and on the other there’s the heuristic of committing to things even if they aren’t panning out. I am unsure of the best way to resolve this conflict.
The dominant framework that I expect people to have which disagree with distinction is simply that when optimizers become more powerful, there might be a smooth transition between an optimizer_1 and an optimizer_2. That is, if an optimizer is trained on some simulated environment, then from our point of view it may well look like it is performing a local constrained search for policies within its training environment. However, when the optimizer is taken off the distribution, then it may act more like an optimizer_2.
One particular example would be if we were dumping so much compute into selecting for mesa optimizers that they became powerful enough to understand external reality. On the training distribution they would do well, but off it they would just aim for whatever their mesa objective was. In this case it might look more like it was just an optimizer_2 all along and we were simply mistaken about its search capabilities, but on the other hand, the task we gave it was limited enough that we initially thought it would only run optimizer_1 searches.
That said, I agree that it is difficult to see how such a transition from optimizer_1 to optimization_2 could occur in the real world.
There are actually a quite a few errors in this post. Thanks for catching more. At some point I’ll probably go back and fix stuff.
There are two questions which I think are important to distinguish:
Is AI x-risk the top priority for humanity?
Is AI x-risk the top priority of some individual?
The first question is perhaps extremely important in a general sense. However, the second question is, I think, more useful since it provides actionable information to specific people. Of course, the difficulty of answering the second question is that it depends heavily on individual factors, such as
The ethical system of the individual which they are using the evaluate the question.
The specific talents, and time-constraints of the individual.
I also partially object to placing AI x-risk into one entire bundle. There are many ways that people can influence the development of artificial intelligence:
Social research to predict and intervene on governance for AI
AI forecasting to help predict which type of AI will end up existing and what their impact will be
Even within technical research, it is generally considered that there are different approaches:
Machine learning research with an emphasis on creating systems that could scale to superhuman capabilities while remaining aligned. This would include, but would not be limited to
Paul Christiano-style research, such as expanding iterated distillation and amplification
ML robustness to distributional shifts
Fundamental mathematical research which could help dissolve confusion about AI capabilities and alignment. This includes
Uncovering insights into decision theory
Discovering the necessary conditions for a system to be value aligned
Examining how systems could be stable upon reflection, such as after self-modification
I am not denying that humans take in sensory input and process it using their internal neural networks. I am denying that process has any of the properties associated with consciousness in the philosophical sense. And I am making an additional claim which is that if you merely redefine consciousness so that it lacks these philosophical properties, you have not actually explained anything or dissolved any confusion.
The illusionist approach is the best approach because it simultaneously takes consciousness seriously and doesn’t contradict physics. By taking this approach we also have an understood paradigm for solving the hard problem of consciousness: namely, the hard problem is reduced to the meta-problem (see Chalmers).
There is the phenomenon of qualia and then there is the ontological extension. The word does not refer to the ontological extension.
My basic claim is that the way that people use the word qualia implicitly implies the ontological extensions. By using the term, you are either smuggling these extensions in, or you are using the term in a way that no philosopher uses it. Here are some intuitions:
Qualia are private entities which occur to us and can’t be inspected via third person science.
Qualia are ineffable; you can’t explain them using a sufficiently complex English or mathematical sentence.
Qualia are intrinstic; you can’t construct a quale if you had the right set of particles.
Now, that’s not to say that you can’t define qualia in such a way that these ontological extensions are avoided. But why do so? If you are simply re-defining the phenomenon, then you have not explained anything. The intuitions above still remain, and there is something still unexplained: namely, why people think that there are entities with the above properties.
That’s why I think that instead, the illusionist approach is the correct one. Let me quote Keith Frankish, who I think does a good job explaining this point of view,
Suppose we encounter something that seems anomalous, in the sense of being radically inexplicable within our established scientific worldview. Psychokinesis is an example. We would have, broadly speaking, three options.
First, we could accept that the phenomenon is real and explore the implications of its existence, proposing major revisions or extensions to our science, perhaps amounting to a paradigm shift. In the case of psychokinesis, we might posit previously unknown psychic forces and embark on a major revision of physics to accommodate them.
Second, we could argue that, although the phenomenon is real, it is not in fact anomalous and can be explained within current science. Thus, we would accept that people really can move things with their unaided minds but argue that this ability depends on known forces, such as electromagnetism.
Third, we could argue that the phenomenon is illusory and set about investigating how the illusion is produced. Thus, we might argue that people who seem to have psychokinetic powers are employing some trick to make it seem as if they are mentally influencing objects.
In the case of lightning, I think that the first approach would be correct, since lightning forms a valid physical category under which we can cast our scientific predictions of the world. In the case of the orbit of Uranus, the second approach is correct, since it was adequately explained by appealing to understood Newtonian physics. However, the third approach is most apt for bizarre phenomena that seem at first glance to be entirely incompatible with our physics. And qualia certainly fit the bill in that respect.
I mean, I agree that this was mostly covered in the sequences. But I also think that I disagree with the way that most people frame the debate. At least personally I have seen people who I know have read the sequences still make basic errors. So I’m just leaving this here to explain my point of view.
Intuition: On a first approximation, there is something that it is like to be us. In other words, we are beings who have qualia.
Counterintuition: In order for qualia to exist, there would need to exist entities which are private, ineffable, intrinsic, subjective and this can’t be since physics is public, effable, and objective and therefore contradicts the existence of qualia.
Intuition: But even if I agree with you that qualia don’t exist, there still seems to be something left unexplained.
Counterintuition: We can explain why you think there’s something unexplained because we can explain the cause of your belief in qualia, and why you think they have these properties. By explaining why you believe it we have explained all there is to explain.
Intuition: But you have merely said that we could explain it. You have not have actually explained it.
Counterintuition: Even without the precise explanation, we now have a paradigm for explaining consciousness, so it is not mysterious anymore.
This is essentially the point where I leave.
The difference between God and consciousness is that the interesting bit about consciousness *is* my perception of it, full stop.
If by perception you simply mean “You are an information processing device that takes signals in and outputs things” then this is entirely explicable on our current physical models, and I could dissolve the confusion fairly easily.
However, I think you have something else in mind which is that there is somehow something left out when I explain it by simply appealing to signal processing. In that sense, I think you are falling right into the trap! You would be doing something similar to the person who said, “But I am still praying to God!”
Also just in general, I disagree that skepticism is not progress. If I said, “I don’t believe in God because there’s nothing in the universe with those properties...” I don’t think it’s fair to say, “Cool, but like, I’m still praying to something right, and that needs to be explained” because I don’t think that speaks fully to what I just denied.
In the case of religion, many people have a very strong intuition that God exists. So, is the atheist position not progress because we have not explained this intuition?
It feels like you’re just changing the name of the confusing thing from ‘the fact that I seem conscious to myself’ to ‘the fact that I’m experiencing an illusion of consciousness.’ Cool, but, like, there’s still a mysterious thing that seems quite important to actually explain.
I don’t actually agree. Although I have not fully explained consciousness, I think that I have shown a lot.
In particular, I have shown us what the solution to the hard problem of consciousness would plausibly look like if we had unlimited funding and time. And to me, that’s important.
And under my view, it’s not going to look anything like, “Hey we discovered this mechanism in the brain that gives rise to consciousness.” No, it’s going to look more like, “Look at this mechanism in the brain that makes humans talk about things even though the things they are talking about have no real world referent.”
You might think that this is a useless achievement. I claim the contrary. As Chalmers points out, pretty much all the leading theories of consciousness fail the basic test of looking like an explanation rather than just sounding confused. Don’t believe me? Read Section 3 in this paper.
In short, Chalmers reviews the current state of the art in consciousness explanations. He first goes into Integrated Information Theory (IIT), but then convincingly shows that IIT fails to explain why we would talk about consciousness and believe in consciousness. He does the same for global workspace theories, first order representational theories, higher order theories, consciousness-causes-collapse theories, and panpsychism. Simply put, none of them even approach an adequate baseline of looking like an explanation.
I also believe that if you follow my view carefully you might stop being confused about a lot of things. Like, do animals feel pain? Well it depends on your definition of pain—consciousness is not real in any objective sense so this is a definition dispute. Same with asking whether person A is happier than person B, or asking whether computers will ever be conscious.
Perhaps this isn’t an achievement strictly speaking relative to the standard Lesswrong points of view. But that’s only because I think the standard Lesswrong point of view is correct. Yet even so, I still see people around me making fundamentally basic mistakes about consciousness. For instance, I see people treating consciousness as intrinsic, ineffable, private—or they think there’s an objectively right answer to whether animals feel pain and argue over this as if it’s not the same as a tree falling in a forest.
Like, I assume that I am a neural net predicting things and deciding things and if you had full access to my brain you could (in principle, given sufficient time) understand everything that was going on in there. But, like, one way or another I experience the perception of perceiving things.
To me this is a bit like the claim of someone who claimed psychic powers but still wanted to believe in physics who would say, “I assume you could perfectly well understand what was going on at a behavioral level within my brain, but there is still a datum left unexplained: the datum of me having psychic powers.”
There are a number of ways to respond to the claim:
We could redefine psychic powers to include mere physical properties. This has the problem that psychics insist that psychic power is entirely separate from physical properties. Simple re-definition doesn’t make the intuition go away and doesn’t explain anything.
We could alternatively posit new physics which incorporates psychic powers. This has the occasional problem that it violates Occam’s razor, since the old physics was completely adequate. Hence the debunking argument I presented above.
Or, we could incorporate the phenomenon within a physical model by first denying that it exists and then explaining the mechanism which caused you to believe in it, and talk about it.
In the case of consciousness, the third response amounts to Illusionism, which is the view that I am defending. It has the advantage that it conservatively doesn’t promise to contradict known physics, and it also does justice to the intuition that consciousness really exists.
I’d prefer to taboo ‘Qualia’ in case it has particular connotations I don’t share. Just ‘that thing where Ray perceives himself perceiving things, and perhaps the part where sometimes Ray has preferences about those perceptions of perceiving because the perceptions have valence.’
To most philosophers who write about it, qualia is defined as the experience of what it’s like. Roughly speaking, I agree with thinking of it as a particular form of perception that we experience.
However, it’s not just any perception, since some perceptions can be unconscious perceptions. Qualia specifically refer to the qualitative aspects of our experience of the world: the taste of wine, the touch of fabric, the feeling of seeing blue, the suffering associated with physical pain etc. These are said to be directly apprehensible to our ‘internal movie’ that is playing inside our head. It is this type of property which I am applying the framework of illusionism to.
The reason I care about any of this is that I believe that a “perceptions-having-valence” is probably morally relevant.
I agree. That’s why I typically take the view that consciousness is a powerful illusion, and that we should take it seriously. Those who simply re-define consciousness as essentially a synonym for “perception” or “observation” or “information” are not doing justice to the fact that it’s the thing I care about in this world. I have a strong intuition that consciousness is what is valuable even despite the fact that I hold an illusionist view. To put it another way, I would care much less if you told me a computer was receiving a pain-signal (labeled in the code as some variable with suffering set to maximum), compared to the claim that a computer was actually suffering in the same way a human does.
Are you saying the my perceiving-that-I-perceive-things-with-valence is an illusion, and that I am in fact not doing that? Or some other thing?
Roughly speaking, yes. I am denying that that type of thing actually exists, including the valence claim.
As a qualia denier, I sometimes feel like I side more with the Chalmers side of the argument, which at least admits that there’s a strong intuition for consciousness. It’s not that I think that the realist side is right, but it’s that I see the naive physicalists making statements that seem to completely misinterpret the realist’s argument.
I don’t mean to single you out in particular. However, you state that Mary’s room seems uninteresting because Mary is able to predict the “bit pattern” of color qualia. This seems to me to completely miss the point. When you look at the sky and see blue, is it immediately apprehensible as a simple bit pattern? Or does it at least seem to have qualitative properties too?
I’m not sure how to import my argument onto your brain without you at least seeing this intuition, which is something I considered obvious for many years.
I think you are using the word “observation” to refer to consciousness. If this is true, then I do not deny that humans take in observations and process them.
However, I think the issue is that you have simply re-defined consciousness into something which would be unrecognizable to the philosopher. To that extent, I don’t say you are wrong, but I will allege that you have not done enough to respond to the consciousness-realist’s intuition that consciousness is different from physical properties. Let me explain:
If qualia are just observations, then it seems obvious that Mary is not missing any information in her room, since she can perfectly well understand and model the process by which people receive color observations.
Likewise, if qualia are merely observations, then the Zombie argument amounts to saying that p-Zombies are beings which can’t observe anything. This seems patently absurd to me, and doesn’t seem like it’s what Chalmers meant at all when he came up with the thought experiment.
Likewise, if we were to ask, “Is a bat conscious?” then the answer would be a vacuous “yes” under your view, since they have echolocaters which take in observations and process information.
In this view even my computer is conscious since it has a camera on it. For this reason, I suggest we are talking about two different things.
If belief is construed as some sort of representation which stands for external reality (as in the case of some correspondence theories of truth), then we can take the claim to be strong prediction of contemporary neuroscience. Ditto for whether we can explain why we talk about qualia.
It’s not that I could explain exactly why you in particular talk about qualia. It’s that we have an established paradigm for explaining it.
It’s similar in the respect that we have an established paradigm for explaining why people report being able to see color. We can model the eye, and the visual cortex, and we have some idea of what neurons do even though we lack the specific information about how the whole thing fits together. And we could imagine that in the limit of perfect neuroscience, we could synthesize this information to trace back the reason why you said a particular thing.
Since we do not have perfect neuroscience, the best analogy would be analyzing the ‘beliefs’ and predictions of an artificial neural network. If you asked me, “Why does this ANN predict that this image is a 5 with 98% probability” it would be difficult to say exactly why, even with full access to the neural network parameters.
However, we know that unless our conception of neural networks is completely incorrect, in principle we could trace exactly why the neural network made that judgement, including the exact steps that caused the neural network to have the parameters that it has in the first place. And we know that such an explanation requires only the components which make up the ANN, and not any conscious or phenomenal properties.