All Is Simple Parts Interacting Simply

In physics, I got a BS in ’81, a MS in ’84, and published two peer-reviewed journal articles in ’03 & ’06. I’m not tracking the latest developments in physics very closely, but what I’m about to tell you is very old standard physics that I’m quite sure hasn’t changed. Even so, it seems to be something many people just don’t get. So let me explain it.

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides.

For example, ordinary field theories have a limited number of fields at each point in space-time, with each field having a limited number of degrees of freedom. Each field has a few simple interactions with other fields, and with its own space-time derivatives. With limited energy, this latter effect limits how fast a field changes in space and time.

As a second example, ordinary digital electronics is made mostly of simple logic units, each with only a few inputs, a few outputs, and a few bits of internal state. Typically: two inputs, one output, and zero or one bits of state. Interactions between logic units are via simple wires that force the voltage and current to be almost the same at matching ends.

As a third example, cellular automatons are often taken as a clear simple metaphor for typical physical systems. Each such automation has a discrete array of cells, each of which has a few possible states. At discrete time steps, the state of each cell is a simple standard function of the states of that cell and its neighbors at the last time step. The famous “game of life” uses a two dimensional array with one bit per cell.

This basic physics fact, that everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, implies that anything complex, able to represent many different possibilities, is made of many parts. And anything able to manage complex interaction relations is spread across time, constructed via many simple interactions built up over time. So if you look at a disk of a complex movie, you’ll find lots of tiny structures encoding bits. If you look at an organism that survives in a complex environment, you’ll find lots of tiny parts with many non-regular interactions.

Physicists have learned that we only we ever get empirical evidence about the state of things via their interactions with other things. When such interactions the state of one thing create correlations with the state of another, we can use that correlation, together with knowledge of one state, as evidence about the other state. If a feature or state doesn’t influence any interactions with familiar things, we could drop it from our model of the world and get all the same predictions. (Though we might include it anyway for simplicity, so that similar parts have similar features and states.)

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth. For humans and their immediate environments on Earth, we know exactly what are all the parts, what states they hold, and all of their simple interactions. Thermodynamics assures us that there can’t be a lot of hidden states around holding many bits that interact with familiar states.

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies. When we can figure out quantities that are easier to calculate, as long as the parts and interactions we think are going on are in fact the only things going on, then we usually see those quantities just as calculated.

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

Note that even if we are only complex arrangements of interacting parts, as social creatures it makes sense for us to care in a certain sense about each others’ “feelings.” Creatures like us maintain an internal “feeling” state that tracks how well things are going for us, with high-satisfied states when things are going well and and low-dissatisfied states when things are going badly. This internal state influences our behavior, and so social creatures around us want to try to infer this state, and to influence it. We may, for example, try to notice when our allies have a dissatisfied state and look for ways to help them to be more satisfied. Thus we care about others’ “feelings”, are wary of false indicators of them, and study behaviors in some detail to figure out what reliably indicates these internal states.

In the modern world we now encounter a wider range of creature-like things with feeling-related surface appearances. These include video game characters, movie characters, robots, statues, paintings, stuffed animals, and so on. And so it makes sense for us to apply our careful-study habits to ask which of these are “real” feelings, in the sense of being the those where it makes sense to apply our evolved feeling-related habits. But while it makes sense to be skeptical that any particular claimed feeling is “real” in this sense, it makes much less sense to apply this skepticism to “mere” physical systems. After all, as far as we know all familiar systems, and all the systems they interact with to any important degree, are mere physical systems.

If everything around us is explained by ordinary physics, then a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.

What more is or could be there to know about feelings than this? For example, you might ask: does a system have “feelings” if it has some of the same internal states as a human, but where those states have no dependence on outside factors and no influence on the world? But questions like this seem to me less about the world and more about what concepts are the most valuable to use in this space. While crude concepts served us well in the past, as we encounter a wider range of creature-like systems than before, we will need refine our concepts for this new world.

But, again, that seems to be more about what feelings concepts are useful in this new world, and much less about where feelings “really” are in the world. Physics call tell us all there is to say about that.

(This post is a followup to my prior post on Sean Carroll’s Big Picture.)

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  • Lord

    Quantum entanglement, stochastics, and chaotic sensitivity will preclude we from ever predicting these in detail but I expect we will understand them much better. While I see no need for anything new, that doesn’t mean feelings are not mediated by what we already know or that these internal states do not affect their subsequent evolution. It seems clear they would or they would not exist in the first place. I would like people to actually explain them though and not just assert they are easily explained as that only persuades me of their ignorance.

    • You could play that game with pretty much any complex part of your world. Look up into the sky and point to a particular cloud. Demand that physics predict that particular cloud shape at that moment in that place, or if not you’ll claim that physics is ignorant of clouds.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        If our physics can’t explain the *mechanisms* that cause the particular cloud shape at that moment, then our physics is indeed ignorant of cloud shapes.

        That doesn’t make our physics ignorant of clouds, but it does make it ignorant of shape formation mechanism.

        I don’t know the state of the art today, but for decades nobody understood turbulence. No one doubted that it resulted ultimately from Newtonian mechanics, well-known forces, gas laws, etc. But exactly how was (and may still be) a mystery – in that case because of computational intractability.

        I’m actually on your side here, Robin. If humans are conscious, I see no reason why ems wouldn’t also be conscious, for the same reasons.

        Whatever those may be.

      • ” No one doubted that it resulted ultimately from Newtonian mechanics, well-known forces, gas laws, etc. ”

        But that’s all that RH is arguing … and it’s what many here reject.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Good for Chalmers, then, for having the guts to follow his argument to its logical conclusion. That’s more than many here seem willing to do.

        I think the problem people have with consciousness or “feelings” (whatever you like to call it) is that it’s very difficult to imagine a satisfying explanation using the physics we know.

        That is unlike any other not-understood phenomenon I can think of.

        Which is interesting.

        But it’s not evidence of anything, other than (perhaps) the limits of our imagination.

      • Understanding life was once just like that. The view of consciousness that many here express is a form of vitalism. There are actually many other things like it. How does moving a wireless mouse cause an arrow to move on a computer screen? Most people have no idea, or have radically wrong ideas. They lack an understanding of computation to get anywhere near how this actually happens. This is true as well of consciousness, but a lot of somewhat educated people (like you) are quite unaware of just how extensive their ignorance is, not just of how these things work, but of how far their own limited understanding is from that of experts in the field.

      • Lord

        An assertion we can explain something is not an explanation. It isn’t even helpful towards an explanation other than as a belief from where we can start. Explanations take hard work. Short cutting that just trains us to believe they aren’t necessary and materialism just becomes another divinity.

      • Peter David Jones

        But that is not analogous. The problem of consciousness is that physics cannot predict the existence whole categories of phenomenon.

      • It’s analogous to the problem of predicting behavior. Physics “fails” to predict gods and ghosts, too.

      • Peter David Jones

        Life without feelings, sensations or emotions must be very dull.

      • There’s the rub. A world without qualia wouldn’t be a world without feelings, sensations, or emotions.

        This is a confusion that Robin’s presentation encourages, although in his application, its rather unharmful, because he isn’t pushing a specifically eliminativist view. (Eliminativism, of course, is far more controversial than Robin’s generic physicalism. The Less Wrong rationalists, for example, staunchly reject eliminativism.)

        But for an eliminativist – or at least for me – a life without qualia is not a life without feelings or “experience.”

        Let’s put it in terms of p-zombies. (I don’t think the zombie concept is coherent, but a qualiaphile will disagree, so zombies useful to make this point.) A p-zombie, which presumably could be studied an an ordinary physical object, would still have emotions. His brain’s pleasure centers would work in just the same way as a “human.” (And, contrary to utterlyuseless, he would still have memory, etc.) His reward centers and limbic system would, by definition, work the same as in humans. He would lack only the illusion that he is experiencing qualia.

      • ” He would lack only the illusion that he is experiencing qualia.”

        That doesn’t seem plausible, since zombies are physically identical to us, living in a physically identical world, so they exhibiit identical behavior, which includes claims that they experience qualia. They even write books claiming that their experience of qualia necessitates that they aren’t purely physical, and they attend conferences devoted to this idea.

      • Yes, p-zombies don’t turn out to be a

      • Peter David Jones

        A world without qualia would have the neural correlates of emotions, etc, but wouldn’t have the subjective, experiential aspects that make emotions interesting.
        A pzombie only lacks qualia, so it is otherwise a congnitive duplicate of a human.. Accoridng to you humans lack qualia, so pzombies don’t differ from humans in that respect. According to you, human have a cogntive delusion that they have qualia, but since standard zombies are cognitive duplicates of humans , they would have the same delusion. Presumably what you mean is that they closest approximation to a p-zombie you can come up with given your commitments is an entity without the delusion of qualua…but that would not be a standard p-zombie.

  • Larry D’anna

    “extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.”

    I’d prefer to say extra feeling stuff is made of information and computation. So it really does physically exist in a human and not in a teddy bear. But at the same time it’s not extra-physical in any way.

    • zarzuelazen27

      Yes, consciousness is a combination of material processes and information. But there’s a problem with the definition of ‘information’!

      See my above post. ‘information’ can’t be fully defined in physicalist terms, because it relies on the concept of ‘counterfactuals’.

      See video here:

      Constructor Theory

      Play from 3:00 minutes.

      • Larry D’anna

        The whole legal and ethical system of society actually relies on taking the concepts of ‘agents’, ‘decisions’ and ‘values’ as ontological primitives

        It actually only depends on taking those concepts as given. What they are made of is mostly unimportant as long as they behave the way they’re supposed to.

        They don’t need to be ontologically primitive any more than “function” and “variable” need to be ontologically primitive when writing a computer program.

        In fact nothing needs to be ontologically primitive, because nothing really can be ontologically primitive. If you follow your reductions down deep enough you don’t find axioms, you find questions and loops. Axioms are properties of systems of rational explanation. They are not properties of the world.

      • zarzuelazen27

        I didn’t say that the ontological primitives were ‘axioms’. They aren’t. What I said was that the concepts of ‘agents’/’decisions’/’values’ are indispensible, in the sense that you can’t strip them out and replace them with other terms.
        Any so-called physical ‘explanation’ of consciousness *already* presupposes them.
        You can see this in Sean Carroll’s failed attempt at a physical account in ‘The Big Picture’.
        He tried to define away mental properties by saying that they’re a ‘vocabulary’ that we use to ‘talk about reality’. But this already *presupposes* an ‘agent’ who is doing the ‘talking’.

      • Larry D’anna

        You said they were “ontologically primitive”, which means something like “they’re the things in the model which aren’t made of anything smaller”. That doesn’t mean they’re axioms. Axioms are statements about the model, not things living in the model. Reductionistic explanations bottom out at axioms about ontological primitives, but that doesn’t mean reality bottoms out where the model bottoms out. It doesn’t mean that reality doesn’t bottom out either.

        Functions are indispensable when talking about computer programs, but functions are made of instructions.

        Pressure and temperature are indispensable when talking about chemistry, but pressure and temperature are made of motion.

        A concept being indispensable is just not incompatible with that concept being made of something else!

        On your second point that reductionistic explanations of consciousness “presuppose an agent”, that’s also not the problem you’re making it out to be. You’re acting like any hint of impredicativity is fatal to any purported explanation of consciousness. But:

        * lots of things (explanations, systems, theories) have impredicative features and do just fine

        * consciousness itself impredicative so it’s not entirely unreasonable for a theory of conciseness to be impredicative too.

        * you’re mixing up meta levels. Saying “consciousness is a vocabulary” is a statement about the concept of consciousness, not about consciousness. The reductionist explanation of consciousness is that it is a type of computation, not that it is a vocabulary. So the particular self-reference you cited doesn’t really occur.

      • zarzuelazen27

        I have another idea for how there could be non-physical effects associated with consciousness even in a completely reductionist picture.
        Some scientists think that ‘computation’/’mathematics’ is even *more* fundamental than physical reality! That is to say, physical reality itself could be an ‘abstraction’ built on-top of computation/math.
        OK, now in programming, you should be familiar with the idea of ‘leaky abstractions’. Sometimes low-level implementation details ‘leak through’ to create effects that are inexplicable in terms of the higher-level programming language.
        If ‘physical reality’ is an abstraction of pure math/computation, than there should be ‘leaks’, where low-level reality (pure math), leaks through sometimes to create really odd effects at the physical level.
        So what if ‘consciousness’ is a ‘leak’ in the abstraction we call ‘physical reality’? Consciousness could indeed be a purely mathematical/computational effect that is actually due to a reality *beneath* the physical level!

      • Larry D’anna

        It’s an amusing idea, but I’m unmoved.

        What if I said the same thing about life?. That there was an animating spirit that brings cells to life that results from phenomena leaking through the abstraction of physics as we know it from below. You might say that cells are clearly made of watery reaction chambers separated by membranes and powered by polymer catalysts. And I might say wait hold on we don’t really know how the cell works in much detail, it’s a mystery, it could be something extra physical. How plausible is that to you ? How much exotic ontology does our ignorance of the details of cell biology justify?

        I’ve never yet encountered a valid argument that minds are anything other than what they appear to be: information processing algorithms implemented in the brain by neurons.

        Sometimes things aren’t what they appear to be but so far I’ve got no reason to suspect this is one of them.

      • The tricky part is understanding how those information processing algorithms can give rise to so-called “subjective experience”, but contrary to the ignorant proclamations of the vitalists, physicalists have offered up detailed explanations of how this can happen … e.g., Marvin Minsky’s “The Society of Mind”, which was published way back in 1986.

      • zarzuelazen27

        ‘information processing’ is in the domain of mathematics and computer science, not physics. Although there is a very close relationship between math and physics, it’s not certain that all the concepts in computer science can be fully translated into physical terms and vice versa.
        Consciousness could depend on an extremely subtle and abstract property of information processing, which may be not be fully understandable in purely physical terms.
        That’s why I think it’s more accurate to say that consciousness is a *combination* of material processes and information processing.

      • Computers and brains are physical systems. Math and computer science enter into our *descriptions* of the behavior of certain physical systems. They aren’t *ontological*. Of course the *descriptions* of these behaviors depend on abstract properties of IP — they cannot be understood without taking the computational view, specifically the functioning of virtual machines — Aaron Sloman has written at length on this.

        This really isn’t any different than the need for probabilistic models to understand gases or QM, and there are many other examples where physical behavior can only be understood by modeling it mathematically. Same with biology, specifically evolution. The idea that any of these things “may not be fully understandable in purely physical terms” is based on a deep confusion.

      • zarzuelazen27

        Naively, only Newtonian physics should be relevant to ordinary biology. But the ‘abstraction’ of Newtonian physics has already been proved to have seriously leaked in biology, with subtle effects of quantum physics leaking all the way through to the macroscopic level.

        Examples, include the European robin and the very process of photosynthesis itself!

        Now look at the bain – the key point we notice is the complex ‘information processing’ – it heavily involves mathematics and ‘information’, the very thing suspected to be even more basic than physical reality!

        There are clear grounds for suspicion here.

      • Larry D’anna

        Newtonian physics can’t even account for chemistry, yet alone life. It would be very naive indeed to expect quantum effects not to be important here.

        You are mixing up meta levels again. Information is not universally more basic than physics. Physics describes reality in terms of math and information, yes. But the information processing were taking about here is physically represented competitions in the brain. It being “information” does not imply at all that it’s more basic or primitive than physics. It’s information inside physics inside information. The two informations aren’t the same.

      • zz’s “ontological primitives” is a blatant lie, blatantly in service of an ideology; of course the legal system does not depend on this, and in fact frequently treats agents as being biological and physical systems (Dennett’s design and physical stances, as opposed to the intentional stance that we take toward agents). It’s really not worth one’s time to engage with people that intellectually dishonest.

  • Tim Brownawell

    Initialize your Turing machine tape from a source of hard quantum randomness and see how far physics goes on explaining the reasons for whatever output it gives.

    It’s entirely the wrong level of abstraction to get any meaningful result.

    • Who said anything about Turing machines?

      • Tim Brownawell

        It sounded like you were saying that as long as you know *all* of the bottom-level first principles, that’s enough to predict how a system will act. I think that in practice it really isn’t, and gave the first example that came to mind.

      • I talked about some calculations being very hard, so that in practice one can’t calculate.

      • Perhaps you should learn about .

        Or, consider a car approaching a red light. We don’t have to know all the “bottom level” facts in order to predict how the system will react; it’s enough to know that it is driven by a normal awake human being, or a properly functioning google/Uber/Tesla automaton.

    • This universe didn’t arise from ” a source of hard quantum randomness”. There would be no evolution or life in a universe like that.

      • Peter David Jones

        You could have supported that with an argument. If you were assuming that hard quantum randomness means a compete absence of lawlike regularity, for instance, you are wrong.

      • I’m only assuming what Brownawell needs for his argument to get anywhere. Duh.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    For decades I’ve joked that my position on consciousness is “it doesn’t exist”. Occam’s razor says that’s the best explanation – seems you’ve followed the same line of thinking (“extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist”).

    Yet I definitely feel conscious, and so I suppose other people do too.

    Assuming consciousness does in fact exist, then it’s either (a) the result of some physics we don’t know yet (admittedly wild claim), or (b) the result of known physics in some way we don’t understand.

    Lots of things fall under (b); turbulence for example. It’s real enough, but so far too complex to really understand, despite fully understanding the underlying physics.

    But at least with turbulence (and similar chaotic systems), we can say *some* things about how they arise, and are quite certain they result from known physics.

    I don’t think we know enough about consciousness to be sure it arises only from known physics (tho that seems likely).

    • You say “yet I definitely feel conscious” as if that was somehow inconsistent with my simple parts interacting claim.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I don’t think it’s inconsistent, but it’s unexplained.

        Probably the feeling is indeed the result of simple parts interacting. But I know of no plausible theory the describes how and why that happens.

        Our knowledge of physics easily explains why people *say* and *act as if* they have that feeling (atoms to molecules to proteins to cells to organisms, selection pressure, etc.).

        But it doesn’t explain why I subjectively *feel* that way.

        Probably there’s a good explanation that only involves simple parts interaction. But I haven’t heard of it.

      • “I know of no plausible theory that describes how and why that happens.”

        Um, so what? Read Marvin Minsky’s “The Society of Mind” and Thomas Metzinger’s “Being No One. The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity” and then get back to us.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I got halfway thru Society of Mind when it came out, and gave up.

        Car to summarize?

      • Is your google broken?

    • ” Occam’s razor says that’s the best explanation ”

      No, it doesn’t. What it says is that “mental stuff exists as a separate ontological category” should be rejected unless there is compelling evidence for it.

      “Yet I definitely feel conscious” — that’s not a problem once you have made the above distinction.

      ” the result of known physics in some way we don’t understand.”

      It’s a lot better understood by neuroscientists than most people are aware of.

      “I don’t think we know enough about consciousness to be sure it arises only from known physics (tho that seems likely).”

      We’re not SURE of anything, but there is far greater reason for confidence in this than in many other things that people take for granted.

  • zarzuelazen27

    There’s no doubt that insofar as consciousness is influenced
    by and influences the physical world, consciousness has to be physical.

    The question mark is over whether consciousness is *entirely*
    reducible to physical terms or not. And here there is doubt.

    In order to *actually* perform a complete reduction of
    consciousness to physical terms, you would have to show that in principle you could completely strip-out the ‘consciousness’ concept from your world-model and still be able to make accurate predictions and explanations about reality. So far this hasn’t been

    The whole legal and ethical system of society actually
    relies on taking the concepts of ‘agents’, ‘decisions’ and ‘values’ as ontological primitives. In order to *actually* (in practice) act effectively in the world, you (Robin) also *must* use the concepts of ‘agents’/’decisions’/’values’ to make predictions (anticipate) and understand other people. There is as yet no complete scientific theory that would let you strip out these concepts and
    replace them with other terms.

    What casts doubt on materialism is mathematics and the
    theory of computation. Clearly mathematical concepts such as ‘computation’/’information’ are *indispensable* to our scientific explanations, in the sense they can’t be stripped out from scientific theories and replaced with other terms.

    David Deutsch argues that the notion of ‘information’ can’t
    be fully reduced to physical terms. As Deutsch explains on his website about ‘constructor theory’, this is because the
    concept of ‘information’ actually relies on the notion of ‘counterfactuals’, for which there appears to be no physicalist reductionist definition.

    Scientifically, the best you could currently do is to say
    that consciousness is a *combination* of material processes (hardware) *and* information (software).

    Consciousness = Matter + Information (Hardware + Software).

    The problem is on the right-hand side of the equation. If we can’t strip out the concept of ‘information’ from our explanation of minds, and if there is no fully physicalist reductionist
    account of ‘information’ (because as David Deutsch has shown, ‘counterfactuals’ are essential to the concept of ‘information’, and ‘counterfactuals’ can’t be fully reduced to physical terms), then it logically follows that mental properties aren’t fully reducible to physical terms.

    • The question mark is over whether consciousness is *entirely* reducible to physical terms or not. And here there is doubt.

      Why doesn’t Hanson’s argument dispose of this question?:

      “But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with
      the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually
      be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?”

      The point being (as I understand it) that “feelings” are things we supposedly acknowledge behaviorally. They aren’t marginal effects since they influence large-scale matter, namely, folks’ flapping their lips accordingly.

  • The most common reason people who argue with good intent can’t get to some type of understanding is they hold profoundly different underlying beliefs. So they argue past each other on the narrow topic at hand, all the while never bringing up their more fundamental disagreement.

    For example. Consider an atheist and a catholic who does not eat meat on Friday’s during Lent. They agree to have dinner on Thursday at the atheist’s house, and agree to have steak. Then something comes up, and they meet on Friday. Then the atheist takes out the steak to cook. And they argue about what food to serve. This tactical argument can’t get anywhere, because ultimately one person has diet restrictions based on belief in God through the church, and one does not. If they don’t get into too big of a fight, and want to understand each other, they should attempt to understand how they differ about belief in God. That’s the fundamental underlying issue. Arguing about steak on Thursday versus Friday is a huge waste.

    We see this in politics of course all the time. People argue about minimum wage effects, but really are not arguing about effectiveness of a particular policy. Rather they are arguing about values toward the poor. So it goes nowhere.

    Another case. As a random example, suppose a hypothetical person, let’s call him, say, Bryan Caplan, posted this argument that ems could never be conscious. Because feelings. Like maybe in this post

    Then another hypothetical person, let’s use the name, say Robin Hanson, points out that physics is materialistic in a post. And feelings are part of physics. Then….bam! We all agree. Hah! Of course I’m kidding. Nobody changes their mind.

    Another possible approach would be to recognize that humans have a fundamental intuition to be dualists on theory of mind. So Descartes was a genius not because he invented dualism. Rather he was a genius in articulating a commonplace innate human intuition most people have, and wrapping it up with a philosophical bow.

    So what does this mean for this case? If you are on the materialist side, you often have to walk people through the logic before they even realize their commonplace intuition makes them dualists. They just have an intuition. As you know, the normal way to do this is with the ship of Theseus example. But do it for a human, replacing one piece at a time. Until you get an em. If you walk people through this, and they have the patience to carefully think about this example, most people realize the logic of their intuitions. At some point they recognize they are dualists. Maybe they use feelings, or qualia, or whatever. Lots of options on how to be non-materialists. Maybe only biological flesh can be conscious. Whatever. But usually they get to a point where they acknowledge there’s something special about consciousness. Ok. Once you get to this point, what’s next? Guess what? You’re done! Done I say! You can’t disprove what is ultimately a type of spiritual belief. There’s really no point in arguing about feelings, or materialist physics being built on smaller parts, or qualia, or quantum entanglement because random acts of god, or whatever variant the person winds up with. You’ve hit the root disagreement. Dualism is a kind of spiritualism. And you can talk about that root together if you want. And maybe get somewhere in clarifying that person’s particular kind of dualism. Maybe it’s influenced by religious beliefs, or some kind of spirituality, or whatever.

    But you’re not going to convince a non-materialist of materialism by pointing out that physics is based on materialism. To them you are arguing in a circle with postulates they disagree with. Arguing about ems not having feelings is a total waste. Stick to the fundamental level of your disagreement. Maybe clarify it further if you have the patience. The first rule of argument club is arguing about anything besides the most fundamental point of disagreement is a waste. Don’t be the atheist arguing with the Catholic about which day to eat meat.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      Intuition is not an argument.

      The best we can say is “we don’t understand how consciousness works”.

      However it works, if it exists, it’s logically part of physics – physics is the description of things that exist.

      That doesn’t mean we understand those physics, or that those physics result from simple parts interacting.

      But it’s a reasonable guess that they do, because all the other physics we understand (which is a lot) works that way. It would be shocking if this were an exception.

      Jumping to the opposite conclusion in the absence of any evidence at all is a “god of the gaps” fallacy.

      • zarzuelazen27

        Many top scientists think that the true description of what exists is not physics, but mathematics or information.

        If math/infomation is the foundation of reality, then ‘physics’ is really just an abstraction built-on-top of computation.

        Beware of leaky abstractions!

        Leaky Abstraction

        All abstractions, ‘leak’, in the sense that effects from lower-levels of reality can sometimes leak through to the upper levels, so that you will sometimes see things happening on the upper levels that are inexplicable in terms of the concepts that apply to that particular level of abstraction.

        Consciousness could be a ‘leak’, in the abstraction we call ‘physical reality’, a mathematical/informational effect that would not be fully understandable in physical terms.

    • “If they don’t get into too big of a fight, and want to understand each other, they should attempt to understand how they differ about belief in God.”

      Um, the atheist already understands that … and understands the basis and stupidity of the Catholic’s beliefs about eating meat.

  • Matthew Light

    Sorry, this entire argument is simply hand-waving.

    Physicists can’t even predict the empirical measurements of elemental chemistry from first principles. A zealous belief that all of chemistry is reducible to physics is simply an assumption coming out of a belief system of reductionism. Far further still is physics unable to predict more complex chemistry, biochemistry, protein folding, crystalization, cellular regulation, not even to expand to sensation, thought etc.

    We can call this “promissory reductionism” because it promises to explain everything — someday in the far future — if we will only give it the blessing of our full faith and belief and eschew talking about ideas like consciousness and choices and ethics and aesthetics that can’t be explained as atoms bouncing around into one another.

    The worst thing for all of this is the fact that the theoretical and experimental findings quantum physics are really pointing towards something very different from the reductionism of classical physics. Hence the very awkward yet fervent rallying to the flag of the Many Worlds hypothesis, an attempt to salvage the weltanschauung or Democritus based on zero evidence whatsoever.

  • Robin, I don’t think you are listening to the people who disagree with you about this. I think you need to try harder to understand what they are saying before you dismiss it, because so far you have not understood them at all.

    Two things. First, your argument undercuts itself, and so we would know it was wrong even if we didn’t know why.

    Second, we do know why.

    About the first point. Your argument undercuts itself, because you say, “The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.” But you started out by saying, “In physics, I got…” How do you know that happened? Because you remember it, which is a feeling. So if feelings don’t exist, you have no basis for any part of this argument. This would be good enough reason to think you are mistaken, even if we did not know why.

    About the second point. We do know where your argument goes astray. You say, “But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with
    the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually
    be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?”

    Yes, it does. We know that, because we know that we say have feelings because we actually have them.

    But you assume that if it does, this means that if you analyzed a person’s particles according to the laws of physics, they should do something else, instead of what they actually do.

    That’s wrong. If you analyze them by the laws of physics, they will do just the same thing.

    That does not mean that the feelings do not cause it. Physics causes you to do what you do, and feelings cause you to do what you do.

    Those are two different kinds of causes, and they cause the same thing. Aristotle called those material and formal causes, when he spoke about this sort of issue a couple thousand years ago.

    • You’ve been stuck on this argument: that it’s incoherent to invoke memory and purpose while disavowing “experience.” But you haven’t given any argument for that conclusion. You haven’t even given an account of memory and purpose that invokes “experience” to compare whether an account without these concepts loses anything. You just assert and assert and assert that “experience” is necessarily involved.

      It’s not Robin who isn’t listening to opposed arguments.

      • I’ve listened to your arguments already, and responded to them.

      • You haven’t taken the matter any deeper than to claim that experience is necessary for memory, purpose, etc., and therefore using them in accounts that forgo “experience” is question begging. But you’ve never even tried to show how an account using “experience” is better at explaining anything, that being because you’ve never offered such an account. You assert rather than argue that experience helps explain, say, memory.

        Think about it.

      • We’ve already discussed the situation you are talking about. Suppose someone “remembers” climbing a tree without experiencing the memory. He may then be able to climb a tree again. But he will not say, “I remember climbing a tree.” Or if he does, you can ask why he is saying that, and he will say something like, “I don’t know. I just felt like saying it.” But then there was an experience, namely the experience of feeling like saying that you remember something, or the experience of feeling like you know how to climb.

        The fact is that “knowing” and every term referring to anything similar is just a word relating a subject and an object. If you remove subjectivity, as you want to, then there is just no such thing as knowledge, or meaning, or truth or falsity, or anything of the kind.

        In other words, if someone says “I remember climbing a tree”, but he does not experience that memory or anything else, those words are meaningless.

        Robin’s words are not meaningless, because he does have those experiences.

      • There’s another point that I should make regarding “assert rather than argue.” I’ve been arguing this point, and the rest of it, repeatedly. But it is true that the premises imply the conclusion, so if you reject every premise that implies the conclusion, the argument will seem circular to you. “Of course you would say that, since you need premises that imply the conclusion. I don’t accept the conclusion, so of course I reject that premise.”

        And every premise I lay down here, you will reject. Because you cannot argue for the starting points of knowledge, or they would not be starting points. And our starting points are our experiences, and nothing else.

      • “But it is true that the premises imply the conclusion, so if you reject every premise that implies the conclusion, the argument will seem circular to you.”


    • “Robin, I don’t think you are listening to the people who disagree with you about this. I think you need to try harder to understand what they are saying before you dismiss it, because so far you have not understood them at all.”


      “So if feelings don’t exist”

      That’s not what he argued.

  • Sondre R.

    Using the word feelings seems a bit of a red herring. What Chalmers and others say is a mystery – the “hard problem” – is the accompanying subjective experience.

    Isn’t it also a bit of a straw man to give your opponent “feelings” requiring “this extra stuff”. I buy their argument, and that doesn’t seem like the position to be arguing against.
    Chalmers is saying that there is an explanatory gap between any process and subjective experience.
    He keeps open all possible explanations, including the possibility that the subjective experience is emergent, as you and Carroll are convinced about.

    To engage honestly you would instead answer the question: How come any process is accompanied by subjective experience?
    And of course ones gut answer might be “I don’t know” or you might argue that it is isn’t necessary, and just weakly emergent, we just don’t understand how yet.

    PS. The computer-analogy: as you say, at the bottom it’s just logic gates. Would you from that conclude that VR games IS logic gates = nothing more to talk about?
    That seems odd to me. Clearly my VR games are built by simpler processes involving logic gates, of course it would be – what else could it be, but that doesn’t make anyone trying to explain the existence of VR games to a alien very accurate by saying: it’s logic gates, nothing more to talk about.

    It’s fascinating is that so complex systems can grow out of so simple parts. And out of those we know about, consciousness seem to be the biggest one around.

    • I try to use simple more familiar terms when possible, and “feelings” is simpler than “subjective experience” yet seems to me to convey the same essential meaning. I’m happy to talk about VR games in high level terms, but I don’t see those as “extra” in the way people claim that feelings are extra relative to physical descriptions.

      As I said in the post, we know a lot about why creatures would hold internal states about how well they are doing, states that influence their behaviors and depend on signals from their environment. So we aren’t actually puzzled by that – people instead seem to be puzzled about why these “feelings” are non-physical, because they feel strongly that they must be.

      • Sondre R.

        Okay that makes sense.

        I agree that we know a lot about the processes that precede or correlate with subjective experience (states that influence their behavior and depend on signals from their environment), though I don’t know about a non-odd explanation that bridges the gap between any of these processes and arising subjective experience.

        (VR-games aren’t extra, and we know we made it. But saying “logic gates did it” would be equivalent to saying “the laws of physics did it” with consciousness. It might very well be true, and it certainly is with VR. But it’s not a good explanation in the David Deutsch meaning of explanation)

      • “I don’t know about a non-odd explanation that bridges the gap between any of these processes and arising subjective experience.”

        So you don’t … so what? Try Tom Metzinger’s work.

      • Sondre R.


        Chalmers and Metzingers are collaborators on some papers. It seems to me that Metzinger has found a bunch of useful neurocorrelates.

        He does not however have a coherent explanation of the emergence of subjective experience. He also emphasizes this in his book, that he is not attempting to present an explanation, and the closest he ever get is to tongue-in-cheek say that consciousness is a useful illusion. Which may very well be of course, what ever that means, but it certainly isn’t a scientific explanation for subjective experience.

      • Sondre R.

        Could you perhaps share some more insights into which of Tom Metzinger’s work you are referring to?

        1. Skimming being no one: I realize you may point to how information processing systems generate the conscious experience of being someone. But in the details here, it is exploring possible reasons for modelling a “self” (as well as to a minor degree the use of attention). But to my eye I cannot see any coherent exaplanation for why this should be accompanied by subjective experience. I would seriously appreciate it if you could help point me in the right direction.

        2. If you are talking about neural correlates: this to me is what I was referencing in the other comment. To me it seems like neural correlates more or less carries it’s main criticism in the name: it’s just correlates. Doesn’t really explain anything. As with any other correlation=/causation-story, it doesn’t even exclude anything really.

    • “Chalmers and others say is a mystery – the “hard problem” – is the accompanying subjective experience.”

      The real mystery is why, in Zombie World, which is physically identical to this one, Zombie Chalmers writes books about consciousness and there are “Towards a Science of Consciousness” conventions where a bunch of wooheads insist that consciousness must not be physical because of their personal experiences which they describe in detail, when there is no consciousness at all in that world.

      The mystery is dissolved when intellectual honesty is employed, vitalistic notions of consciousness are abandoned, and a serious scientific attempt is made to understand how and why all the features of consciousness are explainable and even expected of organisms that function as we do.

      • Sondre R.

        If you are comfortable with the explanation “the laws of physics did it” for consciousness, then yes the mystery is solved. In fact, then all mysteries ever are solved, you just have a catch-all explanation for anything in the world, so why talk about anything. To me this seems very similar to saying “God did it”.

        Your description of the zombie argument is a not correct. It’s more: is it possible to conceive of zombies – not at all that it is likely. Is it possible to conceive of an entity with human behavior not having subjective experience? While extremely unlikely, I wouldn’t say inconcievable.

        But no matter, because this is only a proxy for the central point: that in our current understandings of the processes in the brain, there is no clear – and certainly not obvious – reason why nor how subjective experience arises.

        And again, the paper does not conclude therefore dualism. That is now no longer a straw man, but a lie, since you are literally replying to a comment where I am clarifying it.
        Read it, all it says is to invite for more research, and to be willing to consider “crazy” ideas, of which he includes both Daniel Dennett’s weakly emergent variant as an example, as well as some “out there” theories like integrated information theory of consciousness.
        One possible explanation he doesn’t mention however is dualism, which you and Robin Hanson here keep claiming is the central claim. Jez. Come on guys.

      • “If you are comfortable with the explanation “the laws of physics did it””

        That’s not an explanation and I didn’t offer it as one.

        “Your description of the zombie argument is a not correct.”

        I didn’t describe the zombie argument but what I wrote is correct. I spent years discussing this with Chalmers and other philosophers of mind.

        ” not at all that it is likely”

        I said nothing about likelihood. Your comments are non-responsive to what I did write, which you don’t seem to have understood at all, if you even read it.

        “I wouldn’t say inconcievable.”

        So what? You don’t understand what conceivability entails. For instance, while you might imagine a largest prime, or a consistent and complete formal axiomatic system, you cannot conceive of it in the sense required for the zombie argument — Chalmers discusses this at length in his book. Chalmers has also acknowledged that the zombie argument doesn’t defeat physicalism because the conceivability of zombies is *logically equivalent to denying physicalism*, so it is a case of petitio principii.

        ” in our current understandings of the processes in the brain, there is
        no clear – and certainly not obvious – reason why nor how subjective
        experience arises”

        This is irrelevant to the metaphysical question if one is intellectually honest … science has often faced lack of clear and obvious explanations for phenomena, but rejection of physicalism has never been … and cannot be … the solution.

        “the paper does not conclude therefore dualism. That is now no longer a
        straw man, but a lie, since you are literally replying to a comment
        where I am clarifying it.”

        Fuck off and die, you stupid, ignorant, dishonest asshole. There’s no discussion here of a “paper”. I was talking about Chalmers’ arguments put forth in his book “The Conscious Mind”, which most certainly does conclude dualism. The whole point of the zombie argument is a challenge to physicalism … if the argument is valid, then physicalism is necessarily false. I don’t give a fuck what you are “clarifying” … you don’t understand the subject, and your attempt to respond to *my* comment ignored everything I wrote.

      • Sondre R.

        I’m sorry that I made you so angry.

        I honestly just wanted to try to nest out the actual point of disagreement here.

        If you are curious this is my impression of why this conversation is going so badly:

        1. It is said that supernatural dualism is obviously not tenable as an explanation for consciousness.
        (most agree)
        2. But then you also seem to imply that therefore the explanation for consciousness is obvious
        (most disagree)
        3. People in comments explain why they disagree with 2, you answer with 1 and can’t understand why they don’t realize how obvious this is.

  • AG

    So do EMs have consciousness? As a descriptive question, this is a non question. As a prescriptive question, the answer can be important to ethical models.

    Let’s assume we have a good causal model of feelings and “how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.”

    What “should” we do with this understanding?

    Free will ( it is not like i have choice in feeling it) compels me to ask this arbitrary question. Here, qualia or not qualia matters, and our feelings decide for us, bending our analytical minds to a choice btw the two options. Here, both are equally valid b/c the cold calculus of physicis doesn’t hold any sway unless we feel it should (and then it’s a feeling that is leading the reason).

    if Carroll wants to make the leap to normative prescription, an assumption of qualia or “not qualia” are both equally arbitrary. Some people find a world without qualia to be creepy, other’s don’t care, both are equally arbitrary on the prescriptive side of Hume’s guillotine.

    Perhaps the best line of questioning for someone who “believes” in qualia is one designed to figure if or where they conflate a descriptive model of the universe with a prescriptive plan for living. For example: many logical arguments for vegetarianism require qualia. if a person says they are vegetarian b/c of something objective like qualia in the world, they are objectively wrong. But if they say “i belive in qualia” and “my belief in qualia is equal to your not-belief in qualia when designing prescriptive models” then you can’t out reason them.

    The reasoning to put qualia and not qualia on equal footing doesn’t work with descriptions of the psychical world and the rocket ships we can build with descriptive understandings of the world. However, for arbitrary questions like how you “should” live your live it makes sense.

    the question is “should do”. I can easily agree with your proposition that “the causes and consequences” are easy enough to map. However, given that i don’t have any choice in my feeling of free will (as i am sure our idealized model can explain), I will try and prescribe a use for this model of why i feel what i feel.

    On this side of Hume’s guillotine – comfortably free of the “is” and instead trying to figure out the “ought” – we are left with arbitrary standards that can cause much discomfort (bad feelings) in people like myself who prefer to worship at the altar of reason as their guide.

    1) it would be nice if we could try and figure out the limits of precision when talking in such an inherently arbitrary space.

    2) if nothing else, perhaps we can try and agree upon some basic definitions so we can figure out what we are actually disagreeing about instead of trying to shoe horn logic into a place it may not belong.

    for conversations within the scope of 1) and 2) explaining the casual mechanisms is beside the point of the conversation. It can inform the conversation with better precision (as Dawkins defends sciences place in a convoy of morally) but by itself science misses the boat b/c it is limited to one side of Hume’s guilltone.

    Perhaps EMs of the future will not be considered human b/c people will want to treat them the way we treat animals.

    • I agree that it can be hard to figure out what you want, and what acts you think moral. But you make the problem harder if you insist that those answers must depend on distinctions you have no way to observe or empirically infer, and have no evidence that they even exist.

      • Peter David Jones

        Qualia aren’t unobservable, they are objectively unobservable. That is an important distinction. Wholesale rejection of the subjective simplifies things greatly fir the physicalist, but is otherwise implausible.

      • It’s not an important distinction, it’s bullshit. You talk about “this kind of philosophically uninformed philosophy” yet know nothing about heterophenomenology or the various refutations of your philosophically naive view qualia, observability, or the subjective/objective divide. You write at one moment of “the less reductive physicalisms” and at the next of “wholesale rejection of the subjective”. The fact is that you’re an ideologue who has absorbed just enough internet discussion of consciousness to bolster your beliefs and don’t actually know much of anything about the field of philosophy of mind.

      • Peter David Jones

        I’ve heard of hetereoohenonenology. Can you conceuve of someone reading, but disagreeing with, your favourite philosophers?

      • “I’ve heard of hetereoohenonenology. [sic]”

        I didn’t say you hadn’t.

        “Can you conceuve of someone reading, but disagreeing with, your favourite philosophers?”

        Certainly. But everything I said is still true, and your comment helps confirm it … much like Sarah Palin and all those magazines she reads.

      • Wei Dai

        Robin, suppose you’re an em who is no longer competitive but has enough money to pay for a 10-year (subjective time) retirement. Your retirement host provider offers you a choice of five free upgrades: 1) extend your time by one subjective year 2) you are run on two identical computers carrying out the exact same operations 3) at the end of each subjective day your mind state is rolled back and run two more times with the same inputs, so that you “experience” each day three times 4) each bit operation is immediately repeated four times 5) you’re run on a computer where every component is physically five times the size of a standard computer.

        How would you rank these choices (assuming that none of them have any effects on the outside world)? My inclination is to pick the one that generates the most “subjective experiences” or “feelings” (or at least that ought to factor into my decision), but I don’t know how to observe or empirically infer that. What’s your approach, if you don’t want to depend on such distinctions?

      • My inclination is to pick the one that generates the most “subjective experiences” or “feelings”…

        Many people take drugs these days to dull their “subjective feelings.” The subjectivity of experience has nothing to do with its desirability.

      • Option #1 seems the safe choice, and the one that should be more selected by evolutionary pressures. I’m not sure I should care about exactly the same experience being repeated, relative to having new experiences.

      • Wei Dai

        I thought you might make that choice, which is why I asked for a ranking of the options (e.g., what would you choose if Option #1 wasn’t available). It seems unlikely to me that options 2-5 are all completely valueless or equally valuable, so even if you’d pick Option #1 as your first choice, ranking the remaining options still seems to require distinctions that we don’t know how to observe or empirically infer.

        A strong reason to suspect that duplicate experiences shouldn’t be
        discounted to 0 is that we don’t seem to mind that copies of ourselves in other quantum worlds (or far away from us in the same world if we’re living in a spatially infinite universe) are having the same experiences as us.

        Talking about future evolution doesn’t seem directly relevant, since this thread is about trying to figure out our own values, not the values of hypothetical people who evolved under different selective pressures. Aside from that, I don’t see why an em who would choose #2 over #1 would be evolutionarily disfavored, since he would be just as motivated to work hard to earn money for a good retirement, and you’d find more copies of him in retirement, since he doesn’t demand that his copies have difference experiences which would make it cheaper to host him.

      • It is easy to imagine strange situations where people have trouble knowing what they’d prefer. Doesn’t mean anything mystical or non physical is going on there.

      • Wei Dai

        I was trying to point out that it’s not some people “insist” on having values that depend on apparently non-physical concepts, such as “this system generates more experiences than that system”, but rather we already have values like this. Until someone shows that “generates more experiences” does not make sense and can never be made sense of (or otherwise conclusively shows that we don’t or shouldn’t have values like this), it seems better to keep the dependencies and wait for a future resolution, than to zero out those parts of our values because we don’t currently know what to do with them.

      • None of the examples you gave include apparently non-physical concepts. They are all clearly physical situations where many of us are uncertain about our preferences.

      • Wei Dai

        I’m uncertain about my preferences in these examples because (in part) I want to pick the system that “generates the most experiences” which seems to be a non-physical concept that I don’t know how to observe or empirically infer.

        If your values are not similar to mine in this regard, then I’d take a different approach in discussing this with you, but you still haven’t answered my initial question of how you’d approach the problem of ranking these choices, so I really don’t know. To try this one more time, why are you uncertain about your preferences in this situation?

      • You might as well claim magic exists because you find yourself with a preference to marry a magical spouse, and are struggling to figure out who is magical.

      • zarzuelazen27

        There’s a similar problem in quantum physics. The ‘quantum wave function’ is entirely abstract, with no connection to anything concrete. In order to *actually* connect with concrete observables, a ‘theory of mind’ is needed to explain how to derive ‘observer moments’ (what we actually observe).

        QM is much easier to explain if we introduce non-physical concepts. Look:

        Information: Let the QM wave functions be defined as ‘pure information’ that reside in ‘mathematical space’ (Hilbert space)

        Cognition: Let cognition be defined as the set of operations that connect the QM wave functions to concrete physical observables (The Born rule)

        Fields: The actual concrete physical observables (particles etc.) that emerge through decoherence.

        Then QM can be explained as the interaction between the 3 concepts of {information, cognition, fields), thusly:


        The pure information (wave functions) combines with cognition(Born rule) to produce fields (observables).

      • Wei Dai

        My values seem to depend on the idea of different physical systems generating different amounts of experience. I don’t know if ultimately that really makes sense but I’m not sure enough that it doesn’t to give up trying to figure out the answer. A more reasonable analogy is If I had a preference to marry a magical spouse, then I’d want a higher level of confidence that magic really doesn’t exist before giving up looking for magic in our world.

      • Joe

        I interpret Robin as saying just that consciousness is almost certainly a physical phenomenon, just like everything else. It doesn’t seem to be a claim that you shouldn’t value consciousness. It certainly seems plausible to me that we will one day be able to create good conceptual models that successfully describe consciousness, capturing what we care about and excluding what we don’t, that we can extrapolate to get a better understanding of what else is and isn’t conscious. And that such understanding won’t require positing new kinds of matter or anything of the kind.

        In this view, consciousness really exists in the same way that evolution, or viscosity, or carbon really exist. But until we have a similarly precise definition of consciousness, you can perfectly well make your best guess as to what is and isn’t conscious, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) assume consciousness is undefinable until proven otherwise.

      • Wei Dai

        Consciousness is different from evolution, or viscosity, or carbon in that those concepts all help us make predictions, and we can judge theories about them by testing those predictions. But at least some important questions about consciousness seem to be “non-empirical” in the sense that they don’t seem to be relevant to predictions and can’t be tested by any observations or experiments we can conceivably do on a physical system. For example, the question of which of my Options 1-5 generates the most experience, or the question (in AG’s opening comment) of whether ems are really conscious.

        I interpreted Robin’s reply to AG as saying that we shouldn’t let our values depend on the answers to such questions, and I wanted to challenge that.

      • I interpreted Robin’s reply to AG as saying that we shouldn’t let our values depend on the answers to such questions

        I can understand that, based on the first sentence about it being harder to discover what you want if you assume you must to do it by means of unscientific constructs. I don’t know what Robin was getting at with that sentence.

      • zarzuelazen27

        I think you could probably redefine consciousness in terms of physics, but you’d really have to strech the definition of ‘physics’.
        I think ‘consciousness’ is a fundamental property of reality, and it’s some sort of fine-grained property of ‘causality’ or ‘time’. Consciousness is time perception. And physics as we know it doesn’t properly understand the arrow of time.
        I think ‘qualia’ is actually a unit of ‘time’, and Bostrom is on the right track with his idea of ‘observer momemnts’.
        Decision theory needs to be decomposed…you need to drop down one level of abstraction from ‘decision theory’ and I think you’d have your answer. What are ‘preferences’ made of?
        I think the earlier theories of consciousness are closer than the later ones. The early ideas of time sychronization and gamma waves were on the money, but things went off-track and the newer theories of ‘self-modeling’ and ‘information integration’ theories are going to prove to be red herrings.
        I think you could write a computer program to generate consciousness, but I don’t think it’s at all what Robin is expecting…I think the program would need to exploit low-level hardware tricks to get at the subtle property of ‘time’ or ‘causality’ that is consciousness.

      • What precise Hanson claim are you taking issue with?

      • Wei Dai

        I’m taking issue with “But you make the problem harder if you insist that those answers must depend on distinctions you have no way to observe or empirically infer, and have no evidence that they even exist.” The implied advice here is to give up such dependencies, and that’s what I’m arguing against.

      • But he’s not telling you or ems to give up acting on illusion. Only that illusion provides no way of explaining real phenomena.

        Let’s say, following Hanson’s analogy, that we want to understand how you choose or chose a mate. Let’s say you think you’re looking for magic. If we maintain that the explanation shouldn’t invoke magic, it doesn’t say we can specify a way for you to choose that doesn’t, subjectively, involve looking for magic.

    • So do EMs have consciousness? As a descriptive question, this is a non question.

      Why? It actually surprises me that ems aren’t being used as a way to distinguish positions. Peter David Jones says there are more than two positions, but on this application, there’s only one: they do or they don’t. (I’m not clear on what David would say about this.)

      RH’s view seems agnostic between an identity theory and eliminativism. Either way, what’s true of humans regarding consciousness is probably true of ems. Actually, I think RH probably leans toward the identity theory.

      My eliminativist conclusion is that ems will think they’re conscious, and that’s all there is to being conscious. However, I do wonder whether they would be better off without qualia. (Which is to say, the standard ongoing beliefs in qualia.)

      • Peter David Jones

        Huh? They do, or they dont, can each be asserted by different flavours of physicalism. (Incidentally, each can be asserted by dualisms as well…Chalmers would insist on the consciousness of a good emulation). If you are the kind of physicalist who thinks consciousness emerges from interactions of the simplest possible parts, you might doubt the existence if consciousness in silico, because the fine grained physics us so different. It Or if you are the sort of physicalist who thinks consciousness supervenes on information processing , you would be much more confident about machine consciousness.

      • They do, or they dont, can each be asserted by different flavours of physicalism.

        Of course. Different arguments for the same conclusion. But to argue for one position, you don’t have to review every argument ever made. Philosophy is argument, not cataloging positions. RH has provided an argument. Pointing to the variety of arguments that have been made isn’t a counter-argument.

        That kind of ambiguity is widespread, and rather puts the lie to the idea that the explanation of consciousness is analogous to evolution, with settled science on one side, and shear ignorance on the other.

        The distinction above is relevant to what’s opinion and what’s established. To say that an em or an AI is inherently incapable of “consciousness” may come close in absurdity to denying evolution. There may be different arguments for a common accepted conclusion. [Knowing that is often much easier than knowing why.]

      • Peter David Jones

        RHs argument relies on there being only two positions.

      • I don’t see RH’s argument relying on there being two positions. He states one position, which is a quasi-consensus among physicists. It’s set out in bold strokes, because you only get a consensus here that way.

        After setting out that position with its basic associated argument (although his specific formulation in terms of simple things is perhaps novel), he deals with the most common objection he encounters. He doesn’t imply that there aren’t other lines of objection. [One who wants to argue for them, could plead them, so to speak, as affirmative defense.

        [I really should have said “is” rather than “may.”]

      • AG

        My purpose in commenting was to highlight a leftover dispute even if involved parties agree upon a lot of things. Even if we descriptively agree upon something, it doesn’t prima facie provide what we should do with the information. Thus, it becomes a descriptive non-question.

        To clarify, I am asserting that distinguishing between descriptive positions is moot because it doesn’t overlap into the normative discussions. One can choose to provide descriptive facts greater value (for example, b/c it makes things less complicated). This choice makes things more rational, it isn’t a rational choice itself. There is no prima facie reason to our actions, we choose to reason.

        Why should I care about how I treat others or EMs? For reasons too detailed to go into here, you will need something like Qualia to build an ethical argument. In our cold and uncaring universe, there is no prima facie qualia. We as individuals prescribe it.

        A person trying to describe the world as it is (including consciousness) has no prima facie offerings when it comes to perscribing what someone “should do”. To put it another way, to describe the civilian death toll of a bomb with 100% accuracy is all you can do with physics. you can’t decide if it is worth bombing unless you introduce normative (read: created by humans telling stories) elements.

        Dr. Hanson implies that we don’t have a reason not to be reasonable, and I agree with that. However, we would be making an error if we acknowledge that we don’t have a prima facie reason to not be reasonable. Let’s treat EMs like they are conscious, and we may feel guilty about how they “live”. And it will lead to uncomfortable questions about why we bother treating other humans as conscious when it is so clear that consciousness applies beyond traditional humans. …. to someone trying to describe the world as it is, this discussion of ethics is moot…. a non question.

        The thing is, people tend to describe the world when it serves a purpose they have, (1) some normative compulsion got them asking the question in the first place or (2) they have to make a pre or post hoc rationalization of an action. To “overcome bias” may likely be measured by how well we can recognize when and where we make the normative leaps…. and that is a different question than the nature of consciousnesses.

  • David Condon

    Before you posted this I assumed dualism was a fairly rare belief. Certainly psychological research moved past it more than a century ago. Dualism is an interesting philosophical topic, but trying to form a theory around it simply creates way too many issues. Has Bryan Caplan been arguing in favor of dualism? It seems about as reasonable to me as arguing reality isn’t objective, or that science shouldn’t update its theories based on empirical evidence. Yeah, it’s possible to construct a plausible argument in dualism’s favor, but not one that can readily be falsified within a reasonable time span.

    • As you will see from the comments on this post, a large fraction of observers are inclined to passionately reject the non-Dualist position.

    • Peter David Jones

      Full strength Cartesian dualism is out of fashion. Other dualisms, and the less reductive physicalisms aren’t. A lot of the problem with this kind of philosophically uninformed philosophy is the failure to appreciate the range and subtlety of the options.

      • Cartesian dualism isn’t just out of fashion, it is completely dead due to the interaction problem. While other forms of dualism are indeed “fashionable” in certain circles, they have nothing to recommend them other than obstinacy. As for “the less reductive physicalisms”, you’re now just haggling over the price. Even Daniel Dennett, the standard bearer of physicalism, subscribes to a quite non-reductive form (see, e.g.,

      • Peter David Jones

        Reductive seems to count to Robiin, given his comments about simple parts. Which theory is correct is in general important to truth seekers. However, if you just want to know which soldiers are going to be on your side in some apocalyptic showdown, you can round off a lot of details.

      • It’s uncontroversial that we are made out of interacting atoms. That isn’t what the non-reductive part of non-reductive physicalism is about.

  • marshall bolton

    You are describing Occam’s Razor: “simple parts interacting simply”. This seems to work in the world of physics: There is consensus, it gets results and can be easily revised. But it is worth noting that the world itself does not necessarily consist of simple parts interacting simply. We cannot know what the world consists of; we can only know our models. It is also worth noting that this simple model is not nearly as useful in the world of psychology. People do not wish to consist of simple parts interacting simply; they object. People do not wish to be transparent; they would rather obscure themselves from others and themselves. Nor do people wish to be predicted and controlled; they use an awful lot of energy to confuse such predictions. From a distance the simple model works fine; getting near shows many objections. And from inside; well why don’t you just look ….. inside.

    • People do not wish to consist of simple parts interacting simply; they object.


    • What people wish to think themselves like has little to do with what works well in psychology. Academic psychology actually does make a lot of progress with relatively simple parts interacting simply models.

      • marshall bolton

        Yes! Academic psychology does make a lot of progress. Lots of careers. Lots of articles. But little truth and completely useless if you are trying to have a conversation with another person on important things that matter to them. And of course introspection plays no role in academia. But people trying to be people need models (ideas) that lift up, inspire, create movement and physicalism to that end is a dead end. Simple models (such as pro-social v’s pro-selfish with simple moving parts) also close down rather than open up. They capture and enslave people to the assumptions of economic man. Dismality is spreading, and unfortunately, Robin, you are one of the broadcasters.

      • You’re kin to those profoundly stupid and intellectually dishonest people who claim that teaching the theory of evolution is bad because it leads to eugenics and such.

      • marshall bolton

        People have different views all the time. It is probably very cost effective to regard them as stupid and dishonest but it does rather lead to Balter’s Tyranny where the only person walking in goose-step is yourself.

      • More of the same.

    • “You are describing Occam’s Razor: “simple parts interacting simply”.”

      No, that is not OR … not at all. You seem to know nothing about OR, failed completely to comprehend what RH wrote, but related the two simply because they both involve simplicity.

      • marshall bolton

        James – you are right! I have chosen to no longer apply the Principle of Charity to RH, and thus I no longer understand, what he writes. I probably don’t understand Occam’s Razor either, but by using it I wished to imply that “simple parts interacting simply” is a choice of perspective and not in itself a constituent of the world. AND I object strongly to OR being used on people. Here we have to do it the long, hard and stupid way, which from now on I will think of as Balter’s Beam.

      • “I object strongly to OR being used on people”

        No one gives a fuck.

  • 1) Not sure if wave functions actually fit your definition of simple parts interacting simply. One simply can’t describe the state of the photons in the EPR experiment before measurement by local state even if the theory is local in the sense of no FTL causation/communication. But this doesn’t matter.

    2) Cause isn’t a genuine physics concept. Physics provides exceptionless or probabilistic regularities about the universe. Which parts are causes and which effects is an artifact of how we are situated in the universe. For instance if one ran into a very large region of space in which entropy decreased (unlikely as a matter of initial conditions but possible) it could contain beings which regarded our effects as causes and vice versa.

    Thus your harping about a causal role is misleading. It must be that experiences covary in a lawlike manner with the arrangement of atoms, electrons etc.. but dividing it up into the causally efficacious and non-efficacious is purely arbitrary.

    I mean you might as well ask whether it was the gravitational mass of that (motionless in my frame) object that caused it to bend space or it was the inertial mass that caused it to bend space. Doesn’t make sense to divide that up since inertial and gravitational mass are the same for objects at rest.

    Similarly it doesn’t make sense to ask if the atoms in my brain caused me to act or my experiences caused me to act. SINCE THE ATOMS IN MY BRAIN COVARY IN A LAWLIKE FASHION WITH MY EXPERIENCES YOU CAN REGARD EITHER (OR ANY MIXTURE) AS CAUSAL OR NOT AS YOU CHOOSE,

  • Or to say this in a shorter fashion:

    Please explain what it is you mean by cause. Is it a metaphysical concept or one merely determined by what parts of the world we regard as input to our computational processes and which we regard as reflecting the output of those functions?

    I think you are assigning too much metaphysical weight to the idea of cause and making some unwarranted assumptions about the uniqueness of our dividing things up into causal and non-causal.

    • I’m not the one claiming there are non-physical things. While I agree there are conceptual ambiguities in how people use the word “cause”, I don’t see those as central to the issues of this post. You can’t usefully rebut every argument by simply complaining that a full characterization hasn’t been given of all the concepts it uses.

      • You used the word “non-physical” things right there. I agree people are often not carefull about this. I (and careful philosophers) am claiming that there are properties that are inherently experiential and are not identifiable with any of the things we have normally called physical properties (charge, mass, velocity etc..).

        However, if you want non-physical to mean more than an arbitrary list of properties you need a definition. People are tempted to say things like causally relevant or appear in laws of physics but as I pointed out anything can be put in an appropriate formulation of the laws of physics and causal relevance begs the question you trying to argue.

        See here for some of the issues…though I think there are even more….

      • Well, do these “experiential properties” interact simply with other properties or not?

      • That’s not such a simple question.

        They have a lawlike connection to other properties. Which lawlike connections you choose to call causes isn’t (at least obviously) handed to you by the universe.

        Basically, the universe is presented to us as a series of events and we postulate laws connecting these events together. Given kinds of events A, B (say A= yelling “Ohh shit”, B= colliding with another car and C= getting a jolt to the neck) we normally check which of A, B cause C by considering scenarios where A or B occurs on it’s own and seeing if C still happens (Since car crashes without any pre-crash swearing still result in a jolt but swears without a collision don’t we conclude it is the collision that causes the jolt).

        This simply procedure runs into problems when the events A, B only occur together. We can’t say (IMO doesn’t even make sense to ask) which of brain state or mental state causes the future brain state because we never observe one without the other.

  • if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists?

    Because we, as mental beings, are even more directly acquainted with our phenomenal experiences than we are with the fact that we make statements about them.

    Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons.

    You missed a third possibility, which is what epiphenomenalists actually think, namely, that they are due to a common cause. Brain states give rise to verbal behaviour, and also (due to contingent physical-phenomenal bridging laws) give rise to phenomenal experiences. See, e.g.,

    Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

    Much less remarkable than the denial of what we know best, i.e. our first-personal subjective experiences.

    • Your hypothesized “physical-phenomenal bridging” interactions would be non-mutual, in contrast to every other interaction we’ve ever known of, and it also seems vastly less simple, with quite non simple parts on the phenomenal side. And by hypothesis if it didn’t exist we’d still say we feel in exactly the same way, so there’s still a coincidence to explain.

      • I agree that consciousness is very unusual, and so it would be simpler if it didn’t exist, but that strikes me as an even more radical skepticism than denying that the external world (or the past) exists, and indeed is logically incompatible with my evidence.

        re: evidence: what better evidence could you ask for than the experiences one has direct first-personal access to? What other kind of evidence is there, besides experiences of various sorts?

      • When I spoke of simplicity I wasn’t referring to the idea that dropping consciousness would make for a simpler world to describe. I instead was referring to the idea that the postulated entities are not simple things interacting simply with the more familiar parts.

      • Peter David Jones

        So are you objecting to substance dualism, specifically, or non-physicalism generally?…because the two are not equivalent…as reading a brief overview of phil. of. mind demonstrates.

      • To take positions on such named standard claims, I’d have to read a lot about those claims and all the things people have said about them, because they don’t come with simple clear definitions, but must instead be understood in the context of a huge literature. This is an entry barrier that some fields place to outsiders talking about their topics.

      • Peter David Jones

        To take detailed positions on the full range of positions would take a lot of work, but noting that there are more than two is easy. I’m not against smateur philosophy…I’m an anateur philosopher, albeit one who is fussy about homework…but the originality one might hope for is missing. You, Carroll, Yudkowsky and many others have said more or less the same thing.

      • I never meant to imply anything about the number of positions that have been taken.

      • Peter David Jones

        But the overall logic seems to be: ,if substance dualism is false, physicalism is true. That doesn’t work with more than two options.

      • We of course have evidence that we experience, but we don’t have evidence that those experiences are in any way non-physical. It is that claim that I say we don’t have evidence for, yet people feel inclined to believe it with confidence.

      • Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this academic field called “philosophy of mind”. Look it up sometime!

      • E.g.:

        The arguments are disputable, of course, but it’s just ignorant to deny that they exist.

      • Arguments are different from evidence. You can argue for anything, but showing evidence is much harder.

      • It’s not true that there are serious, reasonably compelling arguments “for anything” — arguments that start from highly plausible premises and should rationally increase one’s credence in their conclusion. What do you mean by “evidence” if not considerations that should rationally increase one’s credence in the view at hand?

        (Note that if you mean specifically empirical evidence, for example, then it is equally true that there is “no evidence” for physicalism: physicalism and epiphenomenalism are empirically indistinguishable theories.)

      • Perhaps you’re a smug asshole. Most philosophers of mind are in the physicalist camp these days.

      • Why so vulgar? I trust that Robin knows me well enough to tolerate my teasing.

        And of course the mere fact that most philosophers of mind favour physicalism in no way undermines my point that there are strong reasons to take non-physicalism seriously, which Robin is failing to in any way acknowledge or engage with.

      • Why not? They’re perfectly good words, and they fit.

    • Also you only “know” you have non-physical experiences in the sense that you are inclined to believe this with confidence. You don’t actually have evidence of it.

      • What do you mean by evidence? Given that you have no experiences, as you claim, you have no evidence that physics works the way you say it does, since you have no evidence for anything at all except the evidence you have from your experience.

      • “Given that you have no experiences, as you claim”

        He didn’t claim that. What’s with all you morons who aren’t able to distinguish between “no non-physical ontology is required to explain experience, or human claims about experience” and “there are no experiences”?

        Here’s what RH actually wrote:

        “a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.”

        That’s not a denial of the existence of feelings or “experiences” (or of their causal effects, as other imbeciles have asserted) … quite the opposite.

  • Peter David Jones

    “I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. ”

    There’s a cascade of claims there …that physics (as a science, or map) is inadequate to describe consciousness as experienced from the inside, and the further claim that something in addition to physics (now meaning a kind of stuff, or territory) is needed to explain it. Since “physical” means something different in each claim, it is possible to affirm the first and deny the second.

    The proposition that physics describes things doesn’t mean that physics describes things uniquely. An account of an “ouch!” in c-fibers firing is valid, but an account in terms of pain qualia is equally valid.

    No extra substance us being asserted, so no question of how it interacts with physical substance is needed. But physics looses its status as being uniquely able to give valid causal explanations, while our access to our own mentality, yields something that cannot be supplied by physics, not because it is a perspective on a different, non-physical thing, but because it is a different perspective on the same thing, a view from the inside, a view which physics cannot supply because physics is inherently a view from the outside.

    The substance that everything is made of can no longer be called physical, since physics is only a particular way of understanding it — as is the mental. In view f which it is usually deemed to be “neutral”. This is the philosophy of Dual Aspect Neutral Monism.

  • arch1

    Robin, you’re arguing against a belief that “something more” is needed to explain human feeling (& thus indirectly, human claims of feeling). But in the “no” prong of your dilemma, the “other feeling stuff” is assumed *not* to do this. So isn’t that prong just a non sequitir?

    • arch1

      Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

      • Peter David Jones

        I think he is taking it that mind stuff can’t explain the casal interaction part. Which leaves epiphenomenalism open, typically unattractive.

      • arch1

        I didn’t get much out of this but thanks for giving it a shot (also for your separate comment describing Dual Aspect Neutral Monism, which I found very helpful).

  • nevertaken

    “Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.”

    What does the word ‘seems’ mean in this passage? Does it fall into the category of “extra feeling stuff”? If yes, then you’ve concluded that it does not exist, and yet you have used the mechanism of ‘seems’ to reach that conclusion. That, therefore would be a self-refuting argument. So the answer must be ‘no’, ‘seems’ is not a ‘feeling’.

    So what is it? It looks from your use of ‘seems’ that it is something that causes you to adopt certain beliefs and that it very likely caused you to take certain actions (for example, the action of typing out the above quoted words). It looks that way, but maybe it’s not. Is what seems so to you – what appears to you to have logical or rational validity – a causal agent in anything you write? If not, why should anyone pay any attention to what you write?

    If so, is it something the physicists have detected? If yes, do tell. If not then your dismissal of the causal role of feelings based on the fact that it has been undetected by the physicists ‘seems’ a bit premature.

    • arch1

      I guess Robin believes that it *is* (a high level description of) something the physicists have detected – namely, the behavior of the particles & fields which make up his brain.

      • nevertaken

        He clearly says that general ‘feelings’ have no detected causal role. Is it the case that physicists (or any branch of scientists) have found a causal role specific to rational, evidenced based beliefs, that is not detectible with respect to irrational subjective motivations? Can science causally link Robin’s typing of this back through the particles in his brain to the beliefs he holds and expresses here in a way that it cannot do to link the actions of a monk at prayer to the monk’s irrationally formed beliefs?

      • arch1

        nevertaken, I may have missed something but I didn’t read Robin’s posting as implying that rational believes have a causal role, but irrational ones don’t. When Robin says “feelings” in this posting I think he just means qualia.

      • nevertaken

        I don’t think he implies rational beliefs have a causal role either. One of my questions to him was whether or not he thinks they do. I took your initial response to answer that they did have a causal role that has been detected by physics at a high level. Sorry if I was confused about your response.

        In any case, his above argument appears to imply that rational beliefs have no causal role – and perhaps even that they do not exist! But it is itself an argument (like all rational arguments) that connects a group of rational beliefs together with rational inference to propose a new belief. I struggle with this contradiction and am genuinely curious to know if, and if so how, Robin (or anyone else) has resolved it.

      • “He clearly says that general ‘feelings’ have no detected causal role. ”

        Funny how false things are “clear” to stupid people and true things are clear to smart people.

    • “What does the word ‘seems’ mean in this passage?”

      It means that a logical argument is hard to come by.

      “your dismissal of the causal role of feelings”

      He offered no such dismissal, merely an argument that feelings are a consequence of physics.

      • nevertaken

        “But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?


        Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.”

        That’s what he said, which I summarized as a dismissal of a causal role for feelings. You might choose to characterize a confident assertion that no will ever find an interaction between feelings and physical events strong enough for feelings to have a usual causal role to be something other than a dismissal of the causal role of feelings. But you would probably only do that if you wanted to to avoid actually addressing someone’s point. You following up with a crack about stupidity is further and fairly strong evidence for that conclusion.

        Anyway, because my lifespan is finite, in the absence of evidence against that conclusion I’m going to refrain from further exchanges with you on this. Please have a good day sir.

      • “other feeling stuff” is not “feelings” — these are completely different things. In RH’s view, feelings are a consequence of physical interactions, and don’t require additional ontology such as “other feeling stuff”. I’m sorry that you’re so stupid that you completely misunderstood his entire argument.

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  • kevinsdick

    Robin, I have to say I was flabbergasted when I saw 60+ comments here this morning. I noticed when you first posted last night, and thought to myself, “Meh. Boring. Preaching to the choir.” I figured you must have had an argument about this with someone outside the rationalist community and just wanted a place for the standard arguments. I apologize. I never would have guessed that so many of your readers disagreed with your position. My NMDA and AMPA mediated signalling have exceeded my dopamine mediated tolerances (

    • Most people are “outside the rationalist community” when it comes to consciousness. The vast majority have deeply vitalistic views.

      • Peter David Jones

        Instead of hurling insults, how about pointing the “vitalists” to the definitive physical explanation of consciousness. Where was it published?

      • I prefer to “insult” dishonest garbage like you with their idiotic strawman demands.

      • Peter David Jones

        Where’s the report button?

      • Fuck but you are dumb.

  • jhertzli

    You mean physicists have not yet discovered a use for Cantorian set theory? That’s a disappointment.

  • zarzuelazen27

    The basic insight that more complex things are all built up
    from simpler things acting locally is solid, and does seem to be the way our universe operates.

    But what makes you think that the ‘basic constituents’ of
    reality are physical? This conclusion is far less solid.

    It’s not at all clear that ‘physics describes everything’.

    At my ‘Reality Theory Portal’ I list ’27 core knowledge domains’ – mathematical (left-hand column), physical (middle-column), and
    social/cognitive (right-hand-column). Physics is plausibly only covering 9 of them.

    What about all the fields of mathematics and computer science (left-hand column)? What about all the social and cognitive sciences (right-hand column)? These are other fields are not talking about physics. Or at least, not obviously so.

    It’s clear there’s a fairly sharp distinction between
    mathematical, physical and mental properties that requires explanation.

    As regards the basic constituents of reality, my probability
    mass is concentrated as follows:

    40%: Panpsychism/Dual- or Triple-aspect solutions: The basic
    elements of reality are an amalgam of mental, physical and math properties (e.g., Chalmers or Koch/Tononi panpsychist style ideas).

    40%: Mathematical realism/Platonist or Pan-computational solutions: The basic elements of reality are mathematical or computational (e.g., Tegmark-style multiverse, or Wolfram-style
    computational reality).

    20%: Materialism: The basic elements of reality are material ( e.g. ‘fields’). The Sean Carroll view.

    <1%: Idealism: The basic elements of reality are mental (e.g consciousness). The Deepak Chopra mystical view.

    As you can see, materialism gets only about 20% of my probability mass. Most of my credence is evenly divided between some kind of mathematical/computational reality (40%) and panpsychism (40%).


    I’m of the opinion that I would have said “feelings”, or “qualia” were BS if I didn’t have them myself…

    This doesn’t discard with known physics: explaining consciousness could simply be a matter of adding one more field and/or a handful of simple interactions to the model.

    • You have no idea what yourself or “having” these things amounts to. Nothing needs to be added to physics to explain it.

      • IMASBA

        Neither do you. I’m not ruling out that consciousness is simply an emergent phenomenon of currently known interactions, but it is something that as of yet has no explanation in physics and I say that as a physicist myself.

      • I’m not the one making stupid statements about how “having” feelings leads to a need for more fields or interactions. Being a physicist is irrelevant; go study neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Consciousness is a biological phenomenon and there are many models that show that it is *expected*.

  • Anons

    It would be nice to have source for these “people”? I understand those from the humanities, religions or otherwise lacking scientific background would have statements like this but others? Of course there are many those who in private do not believe nothing special about feelings but pretend to so for signalling purposes.

    Feelings have evolutionary origin and purpose. They’re just another party of human signalling game.

    Isn’t this the whole point or is this some kind of discussion of consciousness?

    Obviously there are a lot of philosophers who cannot accept that consciousness is just another way to process information. There was actually interesting discussion on Scott Aaronson’s blog about this. There is still something open about consciousness (see his blogpost) but very little to do with “feelings”.

    • “It would be nice to have source for these “people”? ”

      You could always just read the other comments here, or at any other discussion where the vitalistic concept of consciousness is challenged.

      • Anons

        Yeah okay. Personally though, I’m interested and open to progress regarding consciousness.

        The information-theoretic approach is probably the safe bet but I’m quite sure our understanding of consciousness will evolve over the next 100 years (unless we all die). Physics has changed quite a bit since 1900. Meta-rationality. Perhaps we all live in simulation. There are plenty of interesting arguments in that SA’s posts about the issue (and elsewhere). Things about de Sitter space and AdS/CFT beyond my understanding.

        I’m happy scientific worldview is spreading but it doesn’t mean it can’t change. A lot of this is just status that is to be collected (believing in round earth when most people believed in flat earth etc).

      • “Personally though, I’m interested and open to progress regarding consciousness.”

        So what have you attempted to learn about it? Because there’s a vast literature of advances in neuroscience and philosophy of mind over the last couple of decades.

        “believing in round earth when most people believed in flat earth etc”

        And, um, when was that?

  • Dave Lindbergh

    So, 101 comments so far (in 2 days). Isn’t it interesting how the less we actually know about something, the more we talk about it?

    • zarzuelazen27

      Tackling a leading-edge scientific puzzle gets attraction and signals ‘insight’, thus suggesting you are higher status. Solved science is ‘near’, unsolved science is ‘far’ (it’s more abstract, and abstract talk points to higher status).

      • marshall bolton

        Is there a Bias with the name, “Repeating what the teacher has said”? And everyone sees it except the teacher and the child. What was once new and interesting becomes old and dull. After school we are all armed with a body of dead metaphors – the coin of exchange.

    • arch1

      Feynman, to a “Princess Somebody of Denmark” at a Nobel function: “On the contrary,” I answered. “It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance–gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood–so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”
      I don’t know how they do it. There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it!”

  • Joe

    And presumably, ‘simple parts interacting simply’ is a description you would also apply to brain cells.

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  • zarzuelazen27

    I think there’s a very close link between ‘feelings’ (‘consciousness’ or ‘qualia’) and art.
    You can get an idea of what ‘qualia’ may be by looking at the levels of abstaction and carefully trying to trace your thoughts down from the abstract concept ‘qualia’ to lower levels. Follow the arrows down:
    Qualia >>>> Motivations/Drives >>>> Art /Communication
    We see the very close link between qualia, internal motivations and art. In a sense we could say that ‘art’ is the ‘output’ of consciousness. Art could be interpreted as the very concrete expression of consciousness!
    So what is ‘art’? Well, I think it’s our own ‘virtual reality’ – a symbolic ‘lens’ or ‘filter’ that we use to represent salient aspects of reality. The best art always conveys a sense of ‘movement’ or ‘narrative’ – and this , I think, is a huge clue to understanding consciousness!
    Think of stories and music in particular. What’s going on there? It’s a ‘time ordering’ or ‘time series’! Narratives in stories, and rhythms and beats in music. Listen to music and introspect carefully….see how your consciousness strangely seems to get entrained to the beat and how this provokes ‘feelings’ as you get swept up in the metre of the music?
    I think it’s clear that consciousness is very closely linked to some sort of ‘time sequence’ or ‘time ordering’ system in the brain.

  • Robin, do you have any opinion regarding current progress on the OpenWorm project? I believe it has some relevance to this discussion, and your interest in EM research

  • zarzuelazen27

    Taking my best shot at explaining consciousness!

    Quick explanation: consciousness is a ‘self-model’ in the form of particular kind of recursion modelling ‘characters’ in a ‘narrative’.

    Precise explanation: The brain generates 3 fictional characters representing the ‘self’. Feed-back loops between these 3 characters integrate them into a single coherent ‘self’ model evolving through time. Here is an over-view of the idea:

    Let the 3 fictional characters representing you be designated
    {c1, c2, c3}. They are functions defined as follows:

    c1= An evaluative self

    c2= A decision-making self

    c3= A planning self

    Then the recursion proceeds as follows:

    (1) c1 + c2 = c3

    Output from c1 is added to output from c2, and this redefines c3, which then ‘feeds-back’ to c1 and c2.

    (2) c1 + c3 = c2

    Ouput from c1 is added to output from c3, and this redefines c2, which then ‘feeds-back’ to c1 and c3.

    (3) c2 + c3 = c1

    Output from c2 is added to ouput from c3, and this redefines c1, which then ‘feeds-back’ to c2 and c3.

    The above define 3 self-consistent loops. There are 3 seperate complementary descriptions here.

    The recursion generates a single coherent self-model evolving through time as a ‘narrative’, and this is what we call consciousness.

  • bwfields

    Am I wrong in thinking that much of this comment thread is semantic, a debate around what it means to be “physical” and in the realm of “physics”? Feelings need to be encoded some-where and from some-thing so in principle wouldn’t a sufficiently large definition of “physics” cover that? That seems trivial. Or is someone claiming feelings don’t have any underlying structure? That seems crazy.

    • zarzuelazen27

      Look, the language of physics is simply the wrong level of
      description for dealing with consciousness. It’s completely inappropriate. Neuroscience is somewhat better, but still too low-level..

      So yes, to some extent it’s a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of getting the right vocabulary.

      Theoretical economics (decision theory, game theory) is much closer to the sort of vocabulary you’d need to explain consciousness (but it’s too high-level).

      The high-level (statistical) version of ‘particle physics’
      is ‘classical mechanics’.

      The high-level (statistical) version of ‘theory X’ is ‘decision

      What theory is X? Whatever X is, I think that’s the scientific explanation of consciousness.

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