Tagged with philosophy

What To Want

Michael Nielsen tweets:

There's a great line in an otherwise forgotten Reese Witherspoon movie: she asks a psychologist if there's any universally useful advice. He replies: "Figure out what you want, & learn how to ask for it." She replies: "Thanks!" Her face falls: "But both of those are really hard!"

This strikes a bit of a nerve with me. The second part, askng for help, I have always been bad at and while I realized it late, at least I think I have understood it by now. Just to give an example, my time as a PhD student would have gone soo much better if I had gotten over my instinct "not to bother" my supervisor and collegues. The whole thing with coming from a non-academic background probably plays into this, but that's a topic for another time.

Knowing what to want is the more interesting question to me. It is easy to get stuck in believing to want something, then this belief makes it true, in a self-fulfilling way. There are many reasons why we want, and most of them we do not understand ourselves, at least not very well, because even if we think we have good reasons, the chance that they are a rationalization after the fact is quite high. (I am currently re-reading The Elephant in the Brain because of just that.)

There was a time when I envied poeple who knew what they wanted. I think I never really did myself. There are pros and cons to this. For example, keeping the feeling of uncertainty alive made me getting used to and accept it. This can contribute to the continued feeling of wonder about the world and becoming more and more sceptical of people who are too certain of things. Overall this fits nicely with the scientific mindset.

In addition, there is the whole idea of "wanting is suffering" in Eastern philosophy. Being able to want less is a kind of superpower that not only let's you get off the hedonic treadmill, but also cultivate a sense of gratitude which is said to be a major factor in overall happiness. The Stoics were right in this regard.

On the negative side, wanting less and not know what to want can turn you into a drifter, not having an own agenda and simply going along with the flow. Are you fine with others ending up making decision for you instead? If you had more drive yourself, you might have a stronger sense of agency which contributes to life satisfaction. But then again, if you know that the direction of your striving is not really your own choice anyway, what's the point?

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On Consciousness

The other day I listened to Sean Carroll talking to David Chalmers about consciousness, among other related things. I won't summarize it here, go listen for yourself or read the transcript.

What I will do is shortly write down where I stand on some of these questions. Not because I think I have anything new to say, but to clarify it for myself and have a reference to see if I change my mind in the future.

Is there a "hard problem" of consciousness? I am not totally convinced. Maybe subjective experience is just what it feels like to have a brain that continuously hallucinates and updates a model of its body and the world around it. (Which reminds me that I should read more by Anil Seth.) I don't think this justifies calling consciousness an "illusion" though.

Dualism? No. Even if "property dualism" might not directly contradict the physical world, I find it much more of a stretch to assume some new fundamental property of matter than to just admit that we don't yet understand how matter makes minds.

Emergence. I am ambiguous about that term. Yes, it can be abused as a handwavy "magical" process that explains nothing. But it makes sense to have models of the world that work att different levels of description, as longs as the higher-level ones can, in principle, be reduced to and understood in terms of the more fundametal models.

Are philosophical zombies conceivable? I don't think so. An entity cannot behave the same way as a conscious being without a sophisticated mental model of itself and the world, and if subjective experience comes along with these, then there are no zombies.

Do we live in a simulation? Probably, but this makes surprisingly litte difference. Randomness in quantum mechanics and a finite observable universe? Very convenient ways to save calculation effort. Still, we want to understand as much as possible of how it all works and since the rules seem to be consistent throughout, without the gods intervening, it does not matter at all for every-day life, how the universe came about. Which is not to deny that the answer to this is ultimately interesting.

Addendum, 2018-12-14: By coincindence it turned out that, when I after a few months pause took up listening to Eliezer Yudkowsky's From AI to Zombies again, I had left it right at the beginning of the zombies chapter. Now that I am through it and its follow-ups, I cannot do much more than agree with Eliezer, since I found the reasoning convincing and couldn't have said it anywhere close to equally well.

In summary: While one might find the philosophical zombies conceivable, they are not in fact logically possible.

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