About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Massimo’s Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci
* The North East Conference on Science and Skepticism is coming up! Great line up of speakers, tickets on sale now...
* The insanity in Texas continues. Then again, it's Texas.
* The new Rationally Speaking podcast is out: live with Julia and Massimo, part I!
* The Daily Show demonstrates how to make Muslims acceptable to Americans.
* New book about Socrates and his time. Page turner, despite some historical inaccuracies.
* Darwin Day panel discussion on consciousness: Ned Block, Jacqueline Gottlieb and Massimo Pigliucci.
* The Templeton Foundation: good, bad, or who cares?
* Are modern ethical theories (but not virtue ethics) "schizophrenic"?
* Announcing the Dionysus Awards: best films that make you think!
* PZ Myers calls Ray Kurzweil a crackpot. I'm afraid PZ is right on target this time.
* One of the few sensible things I've read recently about the big scary internet...


  1. The Texas concealed carry proposal is a sensible extension of existing law. That rant about it you linked to is hilarious.

  2. There is nothing sensible about either the proposal or, for that matter existing law. Your comment would be hilarious, if it were not meant seriously.

  3. I am being serious, I'm not sure why you would think otherwise. I enjoy shooting. I support the right to keep and bear arms. It's easier to get a concealed carry permit in the state I live in (Washington) than it is in Texas, and the streets here aren't rivers of blood. Utah students with concealed firearm permits have been allowed to carry on campus for some time, it hasn't been a calamity.

  4. I know you are serious, that's what scares the shit out of me. I'm not going to get into a discussion on the so-called right to bear arms, in my opinion it is entirely fruitless.

  5. You seem to have an irrational fear of guns. I agree with you that internet debates about the fundamental right to keep and bear arms tend to be fruitless.

  6. It's not irrational at all. It's based on comparative data across states and countries (but that would get us into a debate on the merits, which we have agreed to avoid), as well as on principle: I regard anyone who needs to carry weapons as somewhat less civilized because I regard violence of any sort as a mark of incivility. Harsh, but those are my values.

  7. Not harsh, squishy, I think, is a more apt description.

    You should visit Montana sometime.

  8. My favorite post-modern professor at school once said Kurzweil was having, "solipsistic discourse."

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  11. As a person who is regularly on a university campus in Texas, I am quite worried about that bill. It's been in the works for a while, and the political science department at my school surveyed the student population and a huge majority of students are not in favor of allowing concealed weapons on campus. That study was delivered to Austin, but obviously what students want is irrelevant.

  12. Cherche Sagesse,

    Your "suspicions" about - excuse me, blatant attacks against - C. Van Carter are entirely unfounded, and are merely a cheap and childish endeavor to build up a straw man (maybe that's giving you too much credit; I SUSPECT you're just in the mood to insult a total stranger). Not a syllable of anything he wrote in his four comments could possibly entail the idiotic accusations you've made against him. Using his own words, I defy you to show me an example of his "emotional attachment to violence", him "cringing" at the idea of a peaceful world, his belief in the wimpiness of "peacemongers", or a fear that "people like [him]" will soon be extinct.

    I SUSPECT you must feel pretty superior right now, but in truth, making outlandish and non-sequitorial judgments about a person you've never met isn't impressive to anyone else in the slightest - indeed, it makes you look crude and foolish. Why don't you try asking this individual to clarify their opinions on the matter? Maybe that's asking too much; but if you're going to insult someone, my advice is to give your abuse a bit more substance and foundation in the future. M'kay?

  13. Dr. Pigliucci,

    I sympathize with your opinion, but what about the need for self-defense? I mean, go and be civilized, as you indeed are, but that won't guarantee that everyone you come into contact with won't be a barbarian, with no qualms about (indeed, they may have every intention of) doing violence to your person, your loved ones or your property.

    I abhor violence myself, but I'm also pretty cynical about my fellow primates and the botched world we all inhabit. Because of the ugly realities of life, however abhorrent violence may be, it can sometimes be necessary and justified, don't you think?

    As for this proposed bill for Texas campuses, I have to say I have ambivalent feelings on the subject. But I've posted enough for now.

  14. Michael, that's why we have a police force, we pay for third-party protection. As for guarantees, do you seriously think there are any in life? Yes, you could be the (highly unlikely) victim of a random shooting. Or you could be killed by some idiot carrying a concealed weapon into a bar. I'll take my chances with the first instance.

  15. This is from 2007, but nothing's changed as far as I can tell. Gun Country.

    I think the U.S. would get a lot farther with its gun problem by promoting a responsible firearm ethos that by changing legislation. Some countries are by the sea; some are dominated by desert: the U.S. is infested with guns. It's part of the landscape.

  16. @C. Van Carter: There is nothing irrational about fear of guns. Guns were designed with explicit goal to kill. We may tolerate it as necessary evil - army, police force, but fear of guns is completely rational.

  17. Do any of you *really* think this law is going to deter someone from going to do a school shooting if they want to? What if a shooting happens and a bunch of people whip out their guns and they all start shooting? This is just a bad idea. I really don't see any benefit to this bill at all.

    And, again, I'll ask why the legislature is not listening to students and faculty about this issue. From what I've heard/read about it, most schools do not like this bill. This has nothing to do with self-defense and everything to do with Republicans in the state playing to their base (just as they are about to cut $5 billion in funding to education, but increase grants and incentives for businesses).

  18. Nice article on the internet, thanks. The revolution that is being missed is the fact that until the net social groups were chosen for individuals. You belonged to a family, a church, a university, a company, a political party, a country etc. With the net your social group is whoever you want it to be. Many of the most important people in my social group I have never met and probably never will. Yet they shape my thinking and I shape theirs. As we are seeing around the world, a social group determined to change their world with the net has no problem doing so simply by creating a group dedicated to doing so and gathering enough like minded people into it to make it happen.

  19. Addendum: Listening to Finlandia on the KDFC stream, the thought occurred to me that perhaps music performed much the social grouping function as the net does now. As everyone can type, everyone can sing.

  20. While not nearly as skittish of guns as Massimo, having grown up hunting here in Alberta, I must say it is unfortunate that the issue gets framed in terms of the "right" to bear arms in the USA (and sometimes here).

    "Right" makes an entitlement out of what should always be seen as a privilege and responsibility.

    Guns on campus are a horrible idea. They would raise the stakes on every barroom brawl or confrontation that occurs there.

    And all so that we students can protect ourselves from events like Virginia Tech? Even if that policy doesn't backfire, and it definitely will, school shootings are emotionally salient but statistically not worth worrying about. At all. Seriously people, go take a defensive driving course instead.

  21. Dr. Pigilucci,

    No, of course I don't think there are any guarantees in life, which is exactly my point. There's no guarantee a police officer is going to be around to protect you when you need it most - indeed, they seem to be better (relatively) at apprehending a violent criminal after a crime has been committed, rather than preventing it in the first place. The cops can't be everywhere.

    As for your statement, "Yes, you could be the (highly unlikely) victim of a random shooting. Or you could be killed by some idiot carrying a concealed weapon into a bar," I'm not sure how to respond to it, as it seems to be an all too narrow and false dichotomy. For one thing, there are many more instances apart from a "random" shooting that would warrant a concealed weapon for the purpose of self-defense - rape, robbery, assault, defense of a fellow citizen in danger of any of the aforementioned - as well as other kinds of weapons a criminal could use - bats, clubs, knives, their own fists. As for the hypothetical idiot in a bar, a ban on concealed weapons isn't going to do much to stop someone with violent or otherwise criminal intent from carrying around a weapon, is it? Brutes will arm themselves and commit crimes whether there are laws forbidding concealed weapons or not. Allowing concealed weapons merely levels the playing field for law-abiding, civilized and pacific folks like you and I. It isn't pretty and it's damn disconcerting, but such is life.

  22. Michael, good points, but it seems to me that people who think along the "I have a right to defend myself" line grossly overestimate how likely they are to be the victims of an act of violence (unless you happen to be a young black man, statistics say), and equally underestimate the dangers of personal weapons (which result in a lot of accidental injuries, either to the carrier or to innocent bystanders).

    As for the effectiveness of bans, I do think they are effective, and the stronger and and more strictly enforced the better. But again, there are no guarantees in life, and we really need to get over this idea that somehow we can be perfectly safe. It's a wild world out there, but let's not turn it into the wild west of Hollywood fantasy.

  23. You make good points as well, Professor - as you very often do, which is why I frequent this blog. The gross overestimation and underestimation you mention are spot on, and the Wild West fantasy is silly and can be dangerous. Proper education in gun safety (as well as self-defense laws - my God, the general ignorance of that is staggering!) can cut back on the risks you mentioned, but only so much. One takes a risk in going about armed, but then so does one who goes about unarmed. It's a trade-off, I guess, that individuals will have to choose for themselves.

    For me personally, aside from the general risk of being the victim of crime (as well as my timid nature and total lack of deftness in hand-to-hand combat), I have an additional reason of my own to think carrying a concealed weapon is smart and should be legal. I'm a gay man myself, and I've read about too many brutual assaults and murders of other gay men to feel anything but terrified at the idea of, say, holding a boyfriend's hand in public. Indeed, there have been a few times where I've been walking down the street and have had people scream "Faggot!" from out of a passing car window (among other things, I'm surprised - I didn't think I was that obvious!). I shudder to think, "What if the car had stopped and those barbarians had gotten out?" Such general anxiety is magnified when I'm with a boyfriend; let me be in danger, but I'll happily shed blood before I let anything happen to him.

    I don't know how much these fears of mine (which may be a bit overblown, admittedly, but they're certainly not irrational) contribute to the discussion - I've said nothing, after all, about the far more salient and manifold danger to women - but that's part of why I support the legalization of concealed weapons (but perhaps not so on campuses...).

  24. Michael, I totally sympathize with your fears. However, if I were you I would look into the actual statistics of assaults on gays in the area where you leave, so that you can gauge the actual risk and not overreact. Or you could move to New York's Greenwich Village and be fine ;-)

  25. There’s already a proven solution to gun related crimes: stricter gun control laws. It strikes me as abhorrent and unacceptable, then, that the legislature is so willing to cavalierly play social scientist and crudely experiment with the lives of students and professors by multiplying the presence of lethal weapons on campus. The idea that more guns equates to enhanced safety or a “leveled playing field” seems to me paradoxical. It’s not at all clear to me how potentially multiplying the number of bullets flying through the air is safer. And, at least in regards to school shootings, it’s decidedly not the case that guns on campus would act as some kind of deterrent – school shooters have universally been unhinged and suicidal. Rational considerations for personal safety tend to lose persuasive force among that crowd.

    This legislation also presumes absurdly ideal conditions: we’re asked to swallow the conservative wet dream of an average Joe who, with military-like precision, blows the brains out of a would-be murderer – saving the day and thwarting a more tragic disaster. Spare me. There’s a host of incalculable variables at work in these situations; distilling the issue to a matter of simply possessing a gun is sheer uninformed delusion. As Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard put it:

    "[M]y whole class thought it was construction noise. Then I thought the killer was a police officer. I barely had time to make the [911] phone call. Anyone who thinks I could have gotten to a weapon and shot somebody I never fully saw watches too many movies. Instead of putting more guns in that classroom two years ago, I would work toward removing the two that were there, in the hands of the shooter. Guns on campus were the problem two years ago, not the solution. And we have to solve the problem, not make more of them."

  26. Good idea; I'll check out those statistics here soon. What's rent like in Greenwich Village? :p

  27. It's estimated 70-80 million American adults own guns, and that guns are kept in 40-45% of households. According to the CDC, in 2004 (the most recent year available) there were only 16,555 accidental firearm injuries and 649 accidental firearm fatalities. To put this in perspective, the NHTSA says the fatality rate for motorcycles is 55.82 per 100,000.

  28. CVC, assuming that your statistics are accurate (I have no time to check, and remember, we agreed that these discussions are usually fruitless?), you are arguing on the basis of a non sequitur. Motorcycles are means of transportation, and most accidents kill the owner, only occasionally the bystander. Guns are designed to kill, and a lot of the injuries are inflicted on others. And that's without considering what to me is the most important point, which is what promoting a culture of gun violence does to our society and our own eudaimonia.

  29. It's not a non sequitur. Those figures don't strike me as "a lot". If anything most people overestimate the danger of guns (look at the terror of firearms expressed by commenters here), and greatly underestimate the dangers of other activities, like motorcycling.

  30. CVC, what is the rate of intentional firearm injuries and intentional firearm fatalities as opposed to intentional motorcycle fatalities? Besides, comparing firearms to motorcycles seems really arbitrary.

    And "terror of firearms" is not a reason to allow more guns on campuses.

  31. I go to a college in Texas and I actually get to go to the capitol to watch committee meetings for my state government class. I can't understand why some of these lawmakers think the problem would end with arming everyone. It won't stop a suicidal person who wants to go on a gun rampage, and it won't stop a non-suicidal psycho from just being more prepared. They can act like a sniper, like Charles Whitman, get grenades, build bombs, shield themselves with kevlar, etc. Seems to me like it's equally as plausible to just start an arms race.

  32. Ah guns,

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

    You just have to wonder why if you had an unrestricted right to bear arms that that first (and rarely quoted) part of the amendment is there at all. Decoration perhaps? Puzzling indeed.

    One interesting thing I find about gun ownership is that you don't need to display any sort of competence with one as you do with an automobile. No trip out to the range to fire at moving human targets which is just what the people who purportedly get one for self defense would be required to do (in an extremely stressful situation no less). To my knowledge you are not even required to take an eye test so the blind could be packing as well as the seeing. Personally I think gun owners should be required to demonstrate an ability to hit what they are aiming at with some minimal competency, but who am I to suggest something rational?

    Guns in no way level the playing field they just tilt it in a different direction - to favor those with good aim, steady hands and a willingness to pull the trigger and blow holes in their fellow human beings.

    A person with a hand weapon can (at least in theory) be outrun and certainly if a group scatters the would be murderer would be unlikely to get them all. No human is fast enough to outrun a bullet however and a sizable group can be killed very quickly. Guns are grease in the machinery of murder.

    I regard violence of any sort as a mark of incivility.

    But the threat of violence is at the very core of civilization. We all know the deal - You obey the law or the people with guns come for you. If you resist them they shoot you. It is the same pretty much everywhere.

    But again, there are no guarantees in life

    Not so. There is one. The one everyone gets. One day you will die. Guaranteed.


    At work whenever there is even a momentary slow down those with hand held screens immediately commune with them. The key difference between them and some of of the other technologies mentioned (like TV) is their unprecedented portability. There is now no compelling environmental inconvenience to keep them from being connected all the time.

    I think that each of us has an inherent desire to grasp the world in which we find ourselves so that we might use that knowledge to our advantage or our entertainment, but it has been a long time since an individual person could know all that needed to be known about their world. It probably ended with writing I imagine. Now there is simply too much to know and the problem gets worse every day. Never mind running as fast as you can to stay in the same place. Run as fast as you can and you still fall behind. Doubtless there is something out there on the internet which you would find supremely insightful, or amusing or useful. You just need to spend a little more time looking for it...

  33. I think allowing firearms on campus is a fabulous idea, and could be a great contribution to society's Eudamonia. Carrying a firearm on campus should require a license, which should require regular psychological counselling, a course in firearm safety and maintenance, and 8-12 hours a month in security training and marksmanship for the lifetime of the license. Hell, throw in a CPR class for good measure.

  34. Myers says:

    "Kurzweil is guilty of a very weird form of reductionism that considers a human life can be reduced to patterns in a computer. I have no stock in spiritualism or dualism, but we are very much a product of our crude and messy biology — we perceive the world through imprecise chemical reactions, our brains send signals by shuffling ions in salt water, ..."

    For him to think that underlying all those ions and all that water is anything other than information is well, weird.

    Of course human life can be reduced to patterns, and of course computer reproduction of life will turn out something different than the original. But most would say the goal is reproduction of behavior, not the object.

  35. Dave,

    > Of course human life can be reduced to patterns <

    I'm not sure what that even means. Perhaps human life can be *described* by patterns, but *reduced* to it?

  36. Massimo - Did not look like Myers was quoting anybody when he said that, but sure, why not?

  37. The proper question seems to me: why yes?

  38. because we are in all in an agreeable mood today

  39. Cheers to that! But don't expect it to extend to tomorrow ;-)

  40. For me (and, I imagine, for many folks), the question of whether or not to own a gun (viz. for protection, since I'm not a hunter) has always been less about political ideology and more about risk management; e.g. the risk of its hurting some innocent (e.g. a family member or neighbor) vs. the risk of being defenseless against an armed & malicious intruder. Macho fantasies aside, I've thus far assumed that the risk of the former is much greater than the latter.*

    All the more so to the idea of allowing students & professors to carry guns on campus.

    * albeit, not entirely without evidence; e.g. I'm also influenced by what public policy experts and epidemiologists (e.g. see Arthur Kellerman) have said on the matter.

  41. "Of course human life can be reduced to patterns, and of course computer reproduction of life will turn out something different than the original. But most would say the goal is reproduction of behavior, not the object." - DaveS

    I think Myer's canned response to non-biologists on biology can be readily resuscitated in honour of Myers on engineering. His whole conception of what computer science is all about is, well, just wrong. Computer science is not merely a response to predefined requirements, for example - in fact, a good half of it is devoted to tracking down and analyzing unexpected results (some might even call it "going where the evidence leads"). I wouldn't spend a lot of time taking Myers too seriously on the subject of AI.

  42. I don't think the Kurzweilians have thought this through. Even in the unlikely event of their success what will they have achieved? They will have transferred to a computer a pale shadow of themselves bereft not only of their bodies, but all the needs and requirements of those bodies. A personality fragment devoid of a need for respiration, digestion, defecation, urination and reproduction. What would that leave? Your enjoyment of games maybe? How many years could one play those without getting tired of them? And who will be paying for the electricity and routine maintenance? Will the boxed personality need to get a job and work at it for hundreds of years? Thousands? Sounds like a form of Hell to me. Perhaps they should read the Harlan Ellison story 'I have no mouth but I must scream,' before deciding on this course.

    Ironically enough being boxed would leave you plenty of time to contemplate philosophy.

  43. @Massimo:
    >I'm not sure what that even means. Perhaps human life can be *described* by patterns, but *reduced* to it?

    If you don't think life can be reduced to patterns, you are basically endorsing philosophical zombies (not that that in itself proves you're wrong, but it is food for thought & goes against previous comments of yours about Chalmers).


    (a) A descriptive model of any physical system (including a human brain or entire human body) is possible in principle.

    (b) Such a descriptive model, running on a small computer, could in principle be "hooked up" to all of a person's input/output ports (i.e., nerves) instead of the person's physical brain, and then run in real time.

    (c) Such an entity would claim to be conscious.

    (d) If you're right, and this model's patterns only "describe" consciousness but don't actually constitute consciousness, the entity in question would be an unconscious entity claiming to be conscious, and hence very much like a philosophical zombie.

    Disclaimer 1: the classic zombies of Chalmers are atom-by-atom identical copies of you; this requirement is relaxed here.
    Disclaimer 2: Kurzweil is a crackpot nonetheless.

  44. @Thameron
    >Sounds like a form of Hell to me.

    I suppose you and I just have different intuitions about the subject. I would be willing to at least try most any form of consciousness in preference to oblivion, which is the other choice on the menu. After all, it's not as if you can't choose death later.

    Serendipitously I happened on this article about locked-in patients today, which tends to confirm my view that our explicitly reasoned ideas about the conditions for our own happiness are way off the mark.

  45. @Massimo:

    Socrates is overrated. While I don't agree with everything in Izzy Stone's book (and he didn't need to learn Greek to write it) a lot of it is true.

    Socrates was more an elitist that the Sophists he condemns in Plato's middle dialogues. After all, they were offering, for what was not too exorbitant a price, to teach the invaluable rhetorical skills needed in Athenian court, since citizens had to be their own prosecutors, or defense attorneys -- skills that previously only the upper class with idle leisure time could cultivate.

    He was an antidemocrat, as shown by staying in Athens not just after the first but the second oligarchic revolutions against the democracy.

    And, though we have just a throwaway line from Aristophanes and a "sober" account from Xenophon, it's clear that the Socrates of "history" is actual in part a person made up by Plato.

  46. I find it somewhat ironic that someone with the handle "gadfly" thinks Socrates is overrated...

  47. Ian,

    are you calling my a Chalmerian?? Watch it, my friend!

    Seriously, no, I don't think your argument flies. I don't necessarily disagree with your thought experiment. I have never claimed that consciousness requires carbon-biological materials to occur. (Though, of course, I remain skeptical that it is possible with other materials, just like any other biological process.) And I certainly never claimed that one cannot create some sort of conscious "machine," since I regard naturally evolved human beings as one such example.

    But notice that throughout your example you didn't just have "patterns," you had solid hardware to go with whatever it is that you are doing! Patterns are simply arrangements of stuff, *not* the stuff itself. And my argument was that consciousness cannot be "just" patterns, without the stuff. That would be crypto-dualism, a la Chalmers.

    But yes, Kurzweil is a crackpot nonetheless.

  48. @Massimo:
    Oh good, it appears we're more on the same page than I thought. But:

    >...notice that throughout your example you didn't just have "patterns," you had solid hardware to go with whatever it is that you are doing! Patterns are simply arrangements of stuff, *not* the stuff itself. And my argument was that consciousness cannot be "just" patterns, without the stuff.

    Okay, I agree with that, the patterns must be physically instantiated. But then what is your philosophical (as opposed to scientific or ethical) objection to uploading then? You had seemed to call the idea incoherent before; have you changed your mind? Uploading would involve a move to another physical substrate, not to no substrate at all.

  49. Great comment on the Myers blog about how hard it will be to achieve immortality by downloading our minds to machines that are always junked in favor of newer editions every other year.

    Massimo: Patterns are simply arrangements of stuff, *not* the stuff itself.
    "Stuff is simply the implementation of patterns" is a more apt description of things.

    Who brings the dualist outlook to the picnic? One holding everything as information, or one putting information and its patterns to one side, magically separating it from stuff on the other side?

  50. Dave, you keep treating "information" as if it were some sort of magic substance. Patterns my themselves are nothing, they need to be implemented. Try driving the pattern describing a car, instead of the car itself.

    Ian, again, the problem is crypto-dualism: what, exactly, is one "uploading"? I find the idea incoherent because I think consciousness is more than just a pattern, just like everything else in the world. There is a big difference between the description of X and X itself.

  51. @Massimo:
    I think the comment of mine that you were responding to has disappeared into the void.

    >There is a big difference between the description of X and X itself.

    Agreed, but again, a mind simulated on a physical computer is, as far as I can tell, "X itself."

    Take anything a mind does: let's say (for example) composing poetry. Simulated photosynthesis doesn't give you sugar, but simulated poetry composition does give you poetry. Now apply the same principle to anything else minds do.

    >what, exactly, is one "uploading"?

    I have to be careful here not to focus overly on the brain. One is uploading whatever functional structure is necessary for the same input/output behaviour as was present in the biological person.

    And one is gambling (based on anti-zombie arguments & intuitions) that anything that walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, thinks like a duck. (Even a Giant Look Up Table, imho).

    In other words, if the simulated me claims to be conscious (because of a functional structure in his program that is isomorphic to whatever physical story makes ME claim to be conscious), then I am going to believe him. The alternative being Chalmers' zombieism.

    I am not sure I'm right, but I am pretty sure that these are the only two viable options outside of substance dualism, so I'm confused about why you seem to want to disagree with both Chalmers and me. Maybe now would be a good time to say why you think Chalmers' zombie idea is incoherent, because I can't think of a robust objection to Chalmers that doesn't lead straight to my position.

  52. Oh, I don't know, the pattern of me can drive the pattern of a car through the pattern of Neverneverland without much problem. It's the mixing and matching that gets troublesome. Though, isn't it just as impossible for the me that is matter and information to drive a merely information car, as it would be to drive a merely material car?

    Would you say that matter without pattern is also nothing?

  53. James, matter *has* to come with pattern. There is no such thing as a patternless matter, even if the pattern is random.

    Ian, I think your previous comment was just posted, sorry about that, the Blogger system isn't perfect. Anyway, with respect to your latest:

    > let's say (for example) composing poetry. Simulated photosynthesis doesn't give you sugar, but simulated poetry composition does give you poetry. Now apply the same principle to anything else minds do. <

    Nice analogy, but it won't do. The "product" here is the felling of consciousness itself, not consciousness' ability to produce poetry.

    > One is uploading whatever functional structure is necessary for the same input/output behaviour as was present in the biological person. <

    No, you are uploading only patterns of information, no structure at all.

    > Maybe now would be a good time to say why you think Chalmers' zombie idea is incoherent, because I can't think of a robust objection to Chalmers that doesn't lead straight to my position. <

    Good question. I think Chalmers' ideas are incoherent because if something has all the biological structures of a conscious being, and those structures function normally, then it seems to me that the thing *has* to be conscious.

    But, again, I suspect that consciousness - being a biological phenomenon - only occurs when certain particular combinations of materials and patterns are put in place, which I really don't think is dualism of any sort.

    Let's use the parallel of life itself, for instance. There has been much speculation in the exobiological literature about non-carbon life forms. These *may* be possible, but they are not likely for the simple reason that carbon has unique chemical properties that even silicon, the element most close to it, does not have. And some of those properties seem to be crucial for something to be alive.

    Again, I cannot exclude a priori that non-carbon life forms exist, or that consciousness can occur in things that are not made in a substantially similar manner to human beings and other primates. But it is a bit too quick to simply *assume* without argument or evidence that this must be the case, no?

  54. @Massimo:

    I can still use the Platonically cultivated image of Socrates as a "handle" without accepting its full truth. And, I like irony in general!

  55. "James, matter *has* to come with pattern. There is no such thing as a patternless matter, even if the pattern is random." - Massimo

    I agree. I may be completely misreading you here, but it sounded like you would concede that while matter cannot exist without pattern, pattern can exist without matter. I don't see why we should accept one and not the other. I've never encountered pattern without matter, or vice-versa.

    If I put that aside, and assume you mean that pattern and matter are ultimately just different words for the same thing, I can see why you would be skeptical of AI in general. Describing the difference between, say, silicon and human grey matter is not a difference in substance, but a difference in pattern (pattern and matter are the same thing, after all). So saying something like "we'll take the pattern from grey matter and encode it into silicon matter" is a suspiciously incomplete one because we don't know how much consciousness depends on the pattern we call grey matter.

    That seems to make sense, but I have creeping doubts. If a difference of pattern is enough to doubt consciousness, how can I reject philosophical zombies? Though my pattern may be the same as yours on the biological level, we certainly do have identical patterns of consciousness. And since difference is merely difference in pattern, wouldn't assuming that other people can be conscious be just as errant as assuming that a computer can be conscious?

  56. James, good points, but let me clarify. Patterns are descriptions, therefore they need to be descriptions of *something*. So it's not quite right to say that patterns and matter are the same thing, but rather that patterns are a description of how matter (or energy, which really is the same thing) is distributed.

    The reason zombies are nonsensical is because everything we know about consciousness tells us that it is a type of biological process that requires certain materials and processes, organized in certain patterns. While the same outcome could conceivably be obtained with different patterns / materials / processes, it makes no sense to me to say that one can have the patterns / materials / processes that produce consciousness, and yet no consciousness.

  57. Massimo, I'm not thinking of information as a magic substance. Perhaps thinking of matter as an onion is useful. And let's say we are looking at a car for the first time. As the car's layers are peeled, they are initially very car-like (transmission, cooling system,...) But peel away a few more layers, and the car analysis has pretty much ended, and it's on to analyzing a type of metal, plastic, or oil.

    Without even getting to the subatomic level, its clear that the essence of the thing is in the eyes of the beholder, a la Wheeler's participatory universe.

    Let's say you are willing to concede non-carbon-based life forms, at least in theory.
    Imagine really, really small forms. What possible difference can there be to them between a collection of things that make up a car, and a collection of things that make up a tree? I'd say they would both exist as patterns or ideas, and nothing more.

    Information is decidedly not magical - it is the view that stuff is best thought of only as information, and is useful only when it makes sense, consumed in some fashion by - other stuff.

  58. Dave, I must say that what you just wrote makes precisely no sense to me.

  59. That's why I don't try to make a living out of this. But it sure is fun.

  60. Okay, I think this has been relatively productive.

    >Nice analogy, but it won't do. The "product" here is the feeling of consciousness itself, not consciousness' ability to produce poetry.

    (Note: AND the claim to be conscious itself?!)

    But okay, let me see if I can convince you that this is wrong-headed.

    I think you would agree that whatever the precise nature of consciousness, it's probably a product or by-product of natural selection. I don't know exactly what the just-so-story would be, but I suspect it would have something to do with the survival value of reflecting on one's own decisions, behaviour and thoughts in realtime, as they were being made. After all, it is not clear than an entity incapable of thinking about its own thoughts can ever meaningfully plan, or know that it is mistaken, for example.

    Assuming you're with me so far, can you see any reason why natural selection would favour a creature that, independently of its ability to plan and reflect on its own decision procedure (which is what counts for survival), also has the additional and unnecessary-for-survival property of feeling conscious while it is reflecting? Chalmers' zombies would survive just as well as conscious humans! Why aren't we... them?

    If evolution does not plausibly select for "feeling conscious," then why on earth do we feel conscious?

    Possibility (a): Consciousness is a fluke or a spandrel or an epiphenomenon.
    Possibility (b): Any entity whose behaviour is identical to a human's under all possible relevant conditions must necessarily be conscious just like a human.

    I strongly suspect (p~0.65) possibility (b). But perhaps my admittedly layman knowledge of evolution has led me astray here...

  61. Ian, yes, this has been very productive. In response to your latest: first, I'm not convinced that consciousness is the result of natural selection, it could be a byproduct. There really is no way to know. But more importantly, when you say:

    > why natural selection would favour a creature that, independently of its ability to plan and reflect on its own decision procedure (which is what counts for survival), also has the additional and unnecessary-for-survival property of feeling conscious while it is reflecting? <

    I lost you. In order to reflect on its own decision procedure the creature has to be conscious. That's what consciousness is, the ability to reflect on one's own inner mental workings. So there is nothing *additional* there, as far as I can see.

  62. Yes, sorry, my language wasn't clear, I was equivocating between the feeling of consciousness and consciousness.

    But if consciousness just IS "the ability to reflect on one's own mental workings," as you claim, then haven't you conceded that an organic substrate is unnecessary?

    Maybe only carbon life can have consciousness in the qualia sense, but by the above definition, a computer program can definitely have consciousness in your narrower sense. All it has to do is reflect on its own operation in the right way. If a simulated human can compose poetry, it can definitely do that (or the simulation will be wrong).

    And again, while simulated photosynthesis doesn't make sugar, simulated ability to reflect on one's own inner mental workings is just as good as the real thing, to the extent that it affects further action.

    (At least in all 3rd-person verifiable senses; maybe you want to argue absence of qualia or something?)

  63. Ian, I'm sorry, but simulated consciousness seems to me to be an oxymoron. Either the computer is conscious or is not, regardless of what it looks like from the outside. So, yes, the question boils down to qualia. Again, I am not claiming that necessarily qualia are possible only in carbon-based forms of a given complexity, but those are the only examples we know, and the burden is on those who claims that anything (including "patterns") can have qualia to show that that is indeed the case.

  64. It seems to me that what has been selected for in humans is the propensity to acquire, augment, and transmit culture as a means of survival rather than the more “hard wired” instincts of other animals (of course other animals, primates in particular, rely on learned behavior, but not to this degree). Since other intelligent species apparently possess some level of self-awareness, as evidenced by much recent research, then it follows that human intelligence would allow the highly developed consciousness we have.

    But the essential component, I think, is language, since this highly developed human consciousness is manifested as a dialogue between the “I” and “me” or others. Both this inner dialogue and the ability to communicate precisely are requisite for our cultural adaptive strategy to work. Everything else, from moral systems to the arts and science, might just be by-products of our innate need to write our own “rules” about how to be a human.

  65. Oh, okay, well then my whole "evolutionary argument" boils down to this:

    Assuming reflection on one's decision procedure is enough for survival value, what would be the additional benefit of qualia?

    Thing is, if we define consciousness as the reflection AND the qualia, then we have a pretty plausible idea of how the reflection increases inclusive genetic fitness, but no idea of why qualia should accompany that reflection.

    So sure, one answer is "by-product," but don't you agree that that is a somewhat extraordinary claim when we're talking about two things so inextricable from each other? Surely we're into epicycle territory here...

    Why not just use the razor Ockham gave you and say: "since qualia always accompany such reflection, qualia are probably indivisible from and implied by reflective consciousness."

    Anyway, this is my last post of the night. Perhaps we will continue the Qualia Wars later.

  66. Ian, I don't know whether qualia *have* to accompany consciousness or not. Perhaps they do. Either way, this does little for the evolutionary argument. Consider this: the thumping noise the heart makes *has* to accompany its blood-pumping operation. That surely doesn't mean that the noise making was selected for... So Occam's razor may cut, but not too helpfully here.

  67. I hope you didn't take me as arguing that qualia are selected for. That's just the point - they almost certainly aren't.

    (For the record, I think "qualia" and "reflection on one's own decision procedure" are coextensive, but seen from different points of view. Kind of like "you" and "I" when both refer to Massimo Pigliucci.)

    You say that a simulated brain might not experience qualia. Okay, but will a simulated brain CLAIM to have qualia? Take a moment to convince yourself that it MUST claim to have qualia, unless substance dualism is true.

    Then ask yourself: what is the cause of that claim?

  68. Ian, what makes you think that the ability to reflect on one's thinking *must* come with qualia? That begs the question, seems to me. It assumes that all types of consciousness are going to be like human consciousness.

    And how is this for a twist: it seems to me more likely that selection favored qualia (the subjective personal experience of the world) more than it favored the ability to reflect on one's thoughts. After all, a lot of species presumably have the first but not the latter, and the ability to reflect may significantly slow down one's speed of action in important circumstances.

  69. Good points. However, you should answer the question I bolded above. :P

  70. Ian, how should I (or anyone, for that matter) know whether a simulated brain might claim to have qualia? My bet is that it wouldn't have qualia, whether it claimed it or not.

  71. >how should I (or anyone, for that matter) know whether a simulated brain might claim to have qualia?

    It would have to claim qualia, because whatever physical process makes ME claim qualia is (by hypothesis) being simulated there as well. If it doesn't claim qualia, then qualia must not have a physical cause; hence we know that either Descartes was right, or simulated me is a practical joker. This is the most crucial thing to be clear on in our entire discussion.

  72. Ian, but that's the crucial point: I don't think that simulating a physical process is the same as the actual physical process. So your computer may say that he is feeling qualia, as part of the simulation, but there is no way to know whether it does actual feel them or not.

  73. I agree, I just wanted to make sure we were clear that he will definitely claim qualia.

    Of course, there is no third person verifiable way to know whether anybody experiences qualia... Nonetheless I tend to err on the side opposed to solipsism when an entity claims qualia and has a "brain" functionally analogous to mine.

  74. Several points:
    1. I think that a simulated mind wouldn't have qualia. In a sidebar, Bryan Green e talks about a simulated multiverse in "The Hidden Reality." I think he stretches things too far on simulations.
    2. Ian, only 40 percent of the locked-in patients in that article were responsive enough to be surveyed. If you're staking boxed happiness on that, you're reading way too much into that study.
    3. Ian and Massimo, I have little dbout that at least some aspects of modern human consciousness are spandrels. But, as the old saying goes, it's the only game in town...


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