June 20, 2010

Notes to Why "Why Transhumanism Won't Work" Won't Work

The article is now up on the IEET website, HERE. (A PDF version can be found here.)


[1] Cognitive enhancements have the potential to significantly augment the cognitive capacities of the individual, thus (possibly, to some extent) closing the epistemic gap between what the collective whole and the individual knows. At some point in the future, then, it may be that each individual knows as much as the entire group.

[2] See Jaynes, E.T. and G.L. Bretthorst. 2003. Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Gubrud writes: “Since these multiple criteria, not all clearly defined, may sometimes conflict, or may tend to different formulations of ‘identity’ and its rules, philosophers have here a rich field in which to play. ‘Progress’ in this field will then consist of an endless proliferation of terms, distinctions, cases, arguments, counterarguments, papers, books, conferences and chairs, until all tenured positions and library shelves are filled, the pages yellowed, new issues come into vogue, and the cycle starts over. I come as a visitor to this field, and while I must admire the intricate Antonio Gaudi architecture of castles that have been raised from its sands, twisting skyward and tumbling over one another, my impulse is bulldoze [sic] it (see first sentence of this essay), flatten it out and start from scratch, laying a simple structure with thick walls no more than ankle-high above the ground, as follows.”

[4] Consider the opening sentence of Gubrud’s “Balloon” paper: “Physical objects exist, consisting of matter and energy, or any other physical substance that may exist, but please note that ‘information’ is not one; neither is ‘identity’.” Where to begin? I cannot think of a single philosopher – or, for that matter, scientist – who would argue that information doesn’t exist or is non-physical in nature. (Indeed, information theory is a part of physics.) Most philosophers today are ardent physicalists who see information as perfectly compatible with their metaphysical monism (which asserts that “everything is physical”).

Gubrud’s reflex here is, no doubt, to think: “Yeah, well, that doesn’t make sense to me. How could information really be physical? I mean, you can’t reach out and touch information…” I would encourage Gubrud not to leap to any conclusions; first try to understand why philosophers today take information to be physical (a crucial first step that Gubrud repeatedly fails to make). Then you can proceed to critique the thesis, if you’d like, once you know what that thesis is. (Perusing this article on physicalism would be a good start – but only a start.)

[5] Gubrud writes: “For transhumanism itself is uploading writ large.”

[6] Take note that philosophers typically distinguish between the qualitative and non-qualitative aspects of mentality; in Ned Block’s phraseology, the former is “phenomenal” consciousness and the latter “access” consciousness. Chalmers (1996) also emphasizes an exactly parallel distinction between "psychological" (or "functional") and "phenomenal" conceptions of the mind.

[7] Note that this computation may be of numerous different kinds; again, see this article.

[8] To be clear, functionalism takes mental states to be “ontologically neutral.” That is, while purely physical (e.g., neural) systems could indeed instantiate a given mental state, so could, in principle, an immaterial substance of some sort. All that’s relevant, according to the functionalist view, is the substrate's causal-functional properties.

[9] As Howard Robinson writes: “Predicate dualism is the theory that psychological or mentalistic predicates are (a) essential for a full description of the world and (b) are not reducible to physicalistic predicates. For a mental predicate to be reducible, there would be bridging laws connecting types of psychological states to types of physical ones in such a way that the use of the mental predicate carried no information that could not be expressed without it. An example of what we believe to be a true type reduction outside psychology is the case of water, where water is always H2O: something is water if and only if it is H2O. If one were to replace the word ‘water’ by ‘H2O’, it is plausible to say that one could convey all the same information. But the terms in many of the special sciences (that is, any science except physics itself) are not reducible in this way. Not every hurricane or every infectious disease, let alone every devaluation of the currency or every coup d'etat has the same constitutive structure. These states are defined more by what they do than by their composition or structure. Their names are classified as functional terms rather than natural kind terms. It goes with this that such kinds of state are multiply realizable; that is, they may be constituted by different kinds of physical structures under different circumstances. Because of this, unlike in the case of water and H2O, one could not replace these terms by some more basic physical description and still convey the same information. There is no particular description, using the language of physics or chemistry, that would do the work of the word ‘hurricane’, in the way that ‘H2O’ would do the work of ‘water’. It is widely agreed that many, if not all, psychological states are similarly irreducible, and so psychological predicates are not reducible to physical descriptions and one has predicate [or descriptive] dualism.”

[10] More generally, Gubrud seems especially susceptible to confusing terms with the entities signified by those terms. That is, Gubrud reasons that since there are two (or three, etc.) different terms in the discussion, then there must be two (or three, etc.) different referents. Consider, for example, the following passage from his Futurisms article:

"Thus Moravec advances a theory of
pattern-identity ... [which] defines the essence of a person, say myself, as the pattern and the process going on in my head and body, not the machinery supporting that process. If the process is preserved, I am preserved. The rest is mere jelly.
Not only has Moravec introduced 'pattern' as a stand-in for 'soul', but in order to define it he has referred to another stand-in, 'the essence of a person'. But he seems aware of the inadequacy of 'pattern', and tries to cover it up with another word, 'process'. So now we have a pattern and a process, separable from the 'mere jelly'. Is this some kind of trinity?"

See the first "rule for avoiding sciolism" mentioned in my article.

(Additional note: ontological dualism seems to imply descriptive dualism, but descriptive dualism does not necessarily imply ontological dualism.)

[11] Chalmers’ view is called “property dualism.” It holds that certain particulars have physical and non-physical properties. In contrast, Cartesian substance dualism posits that those particulars themselves are non-physical in nature. My own tentative view is that this is probably wrong, but that we (unenhanced humans) are simply "cognitively closed" to the correct answer. (This is McGinn's "transcendental naturalism.")

[12] As Georges Rey puts it, "consider some theory, H, about houses (which might state generatlizations about the kinds of houses to be found in different places). The ontology of this theory is presumably a subset of the ontology of a complete physical theory, P: every house, after all, is some or other physical thing. But the sets of physical things picked out by the ideology of H -- for example, by the predicate "x is a house" -- may not be a set picked out by any of the usual predicates in the ideology of P. After all, different houses may be made out of arbitrarily different physical substances (straw, wood, bricks, ice, ...), obeying different physical laws. Houses, that is, are multiply realizable. To appreciate the generalizations of theory H it will be essential to think of those sundry physical things as captured by the ideology of H, not P. But, of course, one can do this without deny that houses are, indeed, just physical things."

[13] The answer to Why? here, on Chalmer's view, is that consciousness is simply a brute fact about the world in which we live. Psychophysical laws connecting matter and conscious states are fundamental laws, just like the laws of thermodynamics, or motion. They are, as it were, the ultimate "unexplained explainers."

[14] As Schneider points out, patternism is thus a computationalist version of the "psychological continuity theory" of personal identity.

[15] This is, in my opinion, a rather interesting thought: the uploaded mind would indeed by psychologically continuous with me. Mind clones seem, I suppose, more intimately related than genetic clones (such as identical twins).

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