Saturday, December 31, 2016

Three short philosophical reflections as 2016 draws to an end.

The world as a simulation:

If the universe is a simulation for the “benefit” of earthlings, perhaps it would not be necessary for the “overlords” designing and creating the simulation, to simulate all of space time. I think this was broached in the Truman Show, where the world of the main character (played by Jim Carrey) was actually a very small region of space, perhaps the size of a small village, but surrounded by solid walls.

Following along with this idea, the seemingly distant and vastly numerous galaxies would not have to actually be objectively there, they would only have to appear to be from earth based observations. Similarly, cosmological time could be greatly truncated to merely the historical times of humans. The Big Bang and the eons of cosmological and geological evolution need only be made to have apparently occurred. The simulation would not need to actually include these eras of time.

Would all of the apparent “creatures” in the simulation need to be conscious? No, as aforementioned, some could be “zombies” (to use the term popular in consciousness writings, robots of a sort with no subjective lives). To introduce a bit of cynicism, this might explain the seeming stupidity of so many people in the world today.

The HBO series “West World” depicts this idea, where, if I am understanding it, only a tiny fraction of the beings within the simulated world are actual sentient beings, the rest being robots. Star Trek the Next Generations’s “Holideck” simulations of past epochs of human history also involve only fractional populations of conscious beings.

Robotic Consciousness:

Today, many AI workers and theorists tend to talk as if this is certain to be achieved by the end of the 21st century (if not significantly earlier). But how will they know for sure that a robotic AI unit is really conscious, and not a “Zombie”? Indeed, we do not know which of our friends, relative, colleagues, and members of the human race at large possess consciousness. We assume that organic humans have it using “Occam’s Razor”: isn’t it the most straightforward assumption that they are conscious, just as we are ourselves? But it is far from certain (for example, consider the point made above in connection with us living in a simulated world).

Yes, there is the Turing Test for intelligence, but this test is not for detecting consciousness. I think it is easy to imagine a platform with intelligence that does not possess subjective consciousness.

However, as so brilliantly and poignantly illustrated in the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation (in connection with the robot known as “Data”), if a robot, or artificial human, seems to be conscious, it seems the only morally acceptable approach is to assume it is conscious. The opposite approach, treating such a being as not having consciousness, runs the risk of treating a conscious being as inanimate, and expendable, machinery. This would be unacceptable morally, horribly so.

Free Will:

It is not only difficult to see how we humans can have free will, it is difficult to even define exactly what it means. Where did the agent supposedly having free will come from? 

The first difficulty comes from “physicalism”, the idea that all motion in the universe ultimately results from causal behavior of elementary particles obeying some kind of “laws” of nature, and nothing can escape from these---certainly not the atoms comprising our brains, or the nerve impulses that seem to represent our thoughts. While quantum mechanics suggests that there is a random element in how the micro-world is realized in the macro-world of our everyday, such randomness does not really seem to be what we want free will to be.

The second sticking point is that “Nature plus Nurture”....i.e., our genetic makeup plus the effects of accumulated experiences would seem to exhaust what could determine the behavior of an individual human. Each individual human begins life as an infant with certain instinctual drives and capacities, but surely decision making invoking free will would only come later after experiences, in conjunction with the physical body,  have molded the character and personality of the human person.

It would seem that a mechanism similar to this would hold even if each person has a spirit or soul that has developed in time (or something like time in some transcendent realm, what we might call “hyper-time”). As long as the decision making nature of a being is formed from some kind of a starting point plus accumulated experiences, whether in this physical realm in another, it would seem that the concept of free will in such a being becomes untenable.

Everything a person does, whether constrained by the physicalist model or the nature plus nurture model, is, at root, just due to random effects. This makes us think that such things a praise and blame, punishment and reward, admiration and condemnation, are all quite unjustified at the deepest level.

There would seem to be a way out of this trap, however---admittedly a highly speculative one, and one that I doubt very many moderns want to entertain for even a moment. But I want to proceed with it here because I firmly believe that each of us do in fact have free will. Furthermore, I think ALL of us believe we do have free will, no matter what is maintained in formal philosophical writings.

So given that I believe we all do have it, a far out idea that is almost surely impossible to prove might compel some degree of acceptance, simply because of the explanatory power of the idea. Suppose that each person has a soul of some kind that is eternal, or at least outside of any kind of time, much in that way that I believe Plato and certain other Greek philosophers imagined.

There are precedents in science for entertaining, or taking seriously, ideas or models that are, at least currently, beyond empirical verification, but that have explanatory power. Examples would be string theory of elementary particles or gravity loop theory, either of which hold out hope of incorporating the gravitational force into the presently incomplete “standard model of particle physics”.

This idea of an eternal soul does suggest that a type of reincarnation might be in operation. Suppose that upon death in this world, your soul goes through some kind of review process in a temporary realm, and that you then maybe even have some say as to what realm you are going to next. Just as dreams fade rapidly upon awakening, so the soul might only very briefly recall or sense fragments of the formal life. Such an idea, if I understand it correctly, is put forth by William Wordsworth in his beautiful poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality....”. The Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany has also toyed with similar ideas in his eschatological short story, The Last Voyage of the King

The subsequent realm does not necessarily have to be Earth, or even this galaxy or universe. It could be in a parallel universe, as some kind of a creature such as was imagined by H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps as a tentacled creature with 7 eyes or legs, or as some conscious being wholly unimaginable to us in our present human state. It would not even necessarily be represented or instantiated in an individual manner, maybe the reincarnated being could be composite of several beings, whether former Earthlings or other.

The speculations along these lines could clearly go on for a long time. but having sketched the broad outline of such a (greatly enlarged from the usual popular idea of it) reincarnation model, now want to move on to other topic, perhaps returning to this one at a later date (in 2017 or beyond).

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