Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


Hanson: Philosophy Kills

Robin Hanson found a skeptical Bryan Caplan when the former explained his positions on cryonics to the latter. ("The more I furrowed my brow, the more earnestly he spoke.") Caplan said:

What disturbed me was when I realized how low he set his threshold for [cryonics] success. Robin didn’t care about biological survival. He didn’t need his brain implanted in a cloned body. He just wanted his neurons preserved well enough to “upload himself” into a computer. To my mind, it was ridiculously easy to prove that “uploading yourself” isn’t life extension. “An upload is merely a simulation. It wouldn’t be you,” I remarked. …

“Suppose we uploaded you while you were still alive. Are you saying that if someone blew your biological head off with a shotgun, you’d still be alive?!” Robin didn’t even blink: “I’d say that I just got smaller.” … I’d like to think that Robin’s an outlier among cryonics advocates, but in my experience, he’s perfectly typical. Fascination with technology crowds out not just philosophy of mind, but common sense.

Hanson responded with an articulate explanation of causal functionalism and the illusory quality of the mind/matter distinction:

Bryan, you are the sum of your parts and their relations. We know where you are and what you are made of; you are in your head, and you are made out of the signals that your brain cells send each other. Humans evolved to think differently about minds versus other stuff, and while that is a useful category of thought, really we can see that minds are made out of the same parts, just arranged differently. Yes, you “feel,” but that just tells you that stuff feels, it doesn’t say you are made of anything besides the stuff you see around and inside you.

Although the argument may seem to be about cryonics on the surface, it is really about the viability of uploading.

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  1. Cleary identity in the land of uploading is not something we’re evolved to deal with, and takes some work to think about. Like with so much else, advanced “transhumanist” technologies take things which we once assumed equivalent (they were always grouped together before) and seperates them into finer and finer grains. An excellent example is “what makes a human?”. Here, the word “you” means so many things it becomes almost useless. Some people seem to abandon the subjective viewpoint altogether. We don’t have real evidence that it’s more than illusion, but then again, I can’t find any evidence that it’s an illusion either.

    As I think others are coming to do, I think there are two issues at work in this uploading debate, issues which were never really separated before. On the one hand is the very scientific and sound disbelief in a mind/body dualism, augmented by the knowledge that no atom is unique. It would seem there is (very) little basis for calling one of you an original and the other a copy, rather they are both you.

    On the other hand are the people who don’t want to be shot in the face. While we’ve been (properly) cautioned against reasoning from conclusions, I feel this is sometimes occurs in this group (as it did for me). Or perhaps we can say that it is a conclusion already arrive at by other evidence. As a core element of the utility functions of many of us, it’s a very hard sell, telling someone who doesn’t want to die that it’s perfectly fine if their brain gets splattered all over the wall behind them. The conclusion (not to be shot) is so strong that any argument against it is suspect.

    Caplan is essentially in error when he states it is “merely a simulation. It wouldn’t be you”, but my suspicion is that like many he is looking for a/the “real” reason he doesn’t want to be shot in the face. Yes, we are contained in our skulls and reside in the matter there, and yes uploading makes another you, identical in every physical way, sans further experience such as remembering being “over there” a moment before. But what should experience should you expect, were an uploaded copy made and then you were shot in the face? As the experiences of one brain reside within one skull and lack any mystical connection to your uploaded version, you should expect the exact same thing as being shot in the face right now: the (lack of) experience of being dead. It’s just that before all those neurons make their adventurous displacement, you have the consolation of knowing that another person identical to you will still be around, which is great if that’s better than some random stranger being around. For the moment, that version of you agrees with everything you say, so you might well say that it is better.

    “Life”, like “alive” and “you”, has so many meanings it may not be useful in a world of uploads. But as an approximation, perhaps we can say that uploading is not actually life extension, but more accurately is identity extension. Yes, you will still be around, and yes, you should expect to experience nothing. Being fond of experience and not yet convinced I should never expect it anyway, I’ll stick to the nondestructive uploading for now.

  2. Addendum: I feel that it is theoretically possible for me to be convinced that being shot in the face is okay, I just haven’t seen such an argument yet.

  3. It’s a true title. Philosophy kills or, rather, will indeed kill those who share Mr. Hanson’s views on what life is. They will willingly march to their deaths convinced their lives continue after destructive uploading. The fact that so many smart transhumanists believe their lives will continue after destroying the original brain and uploading to another brain instance is astounding.

    There’s nothing wrong with destructive uploading, of course, if someone wishes to create a copy of himself. It’s just that this should be called “life copying”, not “life extension”. Life extension is something different.

  4. Like Caplan, I’m skeptical of copies as life extension. This is well-charted territory. Various futurists, including Kurzweil, have said much the same thing. I don’t see how the idea that consciousness comes from matter leads to dismissing the biological body as Hanson does; it should do the opposite. An upload becomes a distinct individual as soon as it’s created. Now, sufficient connection between upload and original, such as described by Smart, complicates things. If the biological and digital versions form a single conscious, then perhaps death of the later would only be a diminution. That’s where it gets tricky. Personally, I would only be confident of my consciousness persisting with incremental conversion to a different medium.

  5. They both have a different view of what consciousness is. It’s not a debate on cryogenics or even mind uploading. To one, consciousness is centralized somewhere in the brain. For the other, consciousness is distributed and could be augmented or transfered.

    They should probably debate on consciousness itself first. We don’t even know what it is yet.

  6. Passing off the mind/matter distinction as an illusion is specious. It’s reasonable to believe that our conception of consciousness does not conform to reality, but doing so ignores the idea that consciousness itself may not conform to reality.

    If there is no real, objective thing called consciousness, then what we think of as consciousness IS consciousness, and it is no illusion. The I behind our perceptions, however unreal it may be, is still a product of the processes occurring within the brain from moment to moment. And while science would seem to indicate that we can or will be able to replicate the various cognitive functions of consciousness, there is nothing to indicate that the specific identity of each instance of consciousness can be replicated with computers.

    We may be able to upload my mind to a computer, and run a simulation of it, and produce an entity with its own sentient qualities, but that does not mean the subjective experience behind the matter that makes up my consciousness has been transfered. And this makes the prospect of immortality through uploading dim.

    Life, as simple as it can be thought of, relies on continuity. Whether that’s continuity of DNA or continuity of consciousness, life can only move from one point to the next through incremental steps that leave the whole largely unchanged. As soon as we start radically changing the whole in a short period of time – which would occur if we change the substrate of consciousness – we will lose our lives. We may discover some new kind of existence and consciousness, but it won’t be the one with which we are familiar, and we won’t be able to continue living with this concept of self we have always known. And that idea should terrify most.

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