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The Puzzle of Consciousness
There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Then are dreamt of in your philosophy
My picture of the world fits most things. I understand a car, a tree, a computer, not in the sense of being able to build or repair them but in the sense of seeing nothing about them inconsistent with a view of the world based on modern science. A p-zombie, something that appears to be an intelligent human being, something that could pass a Turing test but has no consciousness —GPT4 might qualify — fits my world view too. But nothing in that view explains what must be added to a p-zombie to convert it into me.
My belief that other people exist is a deduction from information reaching me — my consciousness — through my senses. My scientific world view is based not on my own observations but on things my senses report that other people report about their observations, plus elaborate deductions from that information, some of which I can do but much of which I have to take on trust. My knowledge of my own existence, the fact that there is someone looking out through my eyes, is in contrast a first-hand observation continually renewed. Cogito ergo sum.
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The fact that I am certain consciousness exists but cannot fit it into my scientific world view reduces my confidence in the picture of the world linked to that view. It opens a crack in the painting through which other possible worlds can be seen.
The argument, somewhat clearer before the discovery of quantum mechanics, is that everything that happens is the result of the working out of laws of physics which, given a sufficiently precise input, yield a determined output. The reason most people don’t believe in determinism is that they observe themselves making choices.1 That might be an illusion but if I cannot believe what I directly observe it is hard to know what else I should believe.
Choices are made by the mind, the consciousness. The evidence against determinism comes from a part of reality not explained by the model on which the argument for determinism is based — hence to which that argument might not apply.
Guilt, Virtue and Moral Luck
In a recent post I explored the implication for moral judgement of the idea that everything for which an individual might be judged has causes over which he had no control. That argument breaks down if we have control over our choices and so can legitimately be judged by what choices we make.
Free will does not solve all of the problem of moral luck — it is still hard to see why the assassin who hits his target should be considered a worse person than the one who misses, and perhaps he shouldn’t be. It does answer the extreme version that implies that nobody can ever deserve anything.
I have had an easy life; the only part of it that I am seriously unhappy about is mortality, the death of the consciousness. If I believed that I would survive the death of my body via resurrection, reincarnation, uploading, dying would still be inconvenient —but not mortal.
It seems likely that the mind depends on the brain and dies when the body dies. The effect on the mind of things happening to the brain short of dying — alcohol or other drugs in the bloodstream or a blow to the skull — supports that conjecture. I know of no positive evidence against it. But as long as the nature of consciousness is a mystery to me, I cannot be certain.
In an earlier post I discussed moral realism, the idea that our moral beliefs are imperfect perceptions of moral truth. That requires the existence of a moral reality separate from physical reality. The existence of something not explainable as part of physical reality makes that belief more plausible. If I am willing to believe the perception of the fact of my consciousness by my consciousness perhaps I should believe its perception of moral facts as well.
I am an atheist, unable to believe in any religion. Many intelligent and rational people, now and in the past, believed in religions. Since I do not believe that I am smarter than all of them, I should assign some probability to their being right. Interrogating my disbelief it occurs to me that there are beliefs that play a central role in my picture of reality, things I believe with confidence but cannot offer evidence for.
One example is the inductive hypothesis, the assumption that the future will resemble the past. Without it I have no reason to expect that things will fall down tomorrow, not up. The future has resembled the past so far, things have fallen down for as long as we have records, probably for much longer, but to conclude that the pattern will continue to hold tomorrow requires the inductive hypothesis, making the argument circular. Yet I have no doubt that the hypothesis is true.
For another example, consider the following chain of logic:
If economic growth and scientific progress continue along their current path, a thousand years from now there will be many more humans, they will be enormously richer, and they will have much better computers. One obvious form of entertainment, suggested by the historical computer games people play today, will be emulations of past human societies. They will include non-player characters emulated, with the computer power then available, down to the neuron.
A particularly interesting target will be the period when the technologies that made their world possible were first developed, the century from 1936, when Turing presented the principle of a universal machine, to 2036, creation of the first human level artificial intelligence. With a human population in the trillions, that period of Earth’s history will be emulated over and over.
The real history only happens once, its emulation thousands or millions of times. How likely is it that I am the real David Friedman instead of one of the emulated ones?
It is a lovely argument and I have no way of proving that it untrue, but I don’t actually believe in it.
I have beliefs that I cannot logically justify. Other people have beliefs that they cannot logically justify. I cannot share their beliefs, save as imaginative fictions, Narnia or Middle Earth, but neither can I be certain they are wrong. And their world view has one advantage over mine — a space for, theory of, consciousness.
They call it the soul.
I have a picture of reality shared with many of my contemporaries. It claims to be a complete picture, capable in principle of explaining anything. There is one thing I know of that I do not see how it could explain. A theorem is refuted by a single counterexample.
Thinking about that gives me no new answers but it makes me less confident of the answers I have.
Many of those who believe that they believe in determinism don’t. For the distinction between believing and believing that you believe, see the beginning of Scott Alexander’s recent post on Doxastic voluntarists. In the example he quotes, students who claim control over their own beliefs and say they now believe there is a ravenous lion in the middle of the classroom do not act as if they believed it.
I do not think I have ever met someone who acted as if he believed that he was merely a spectator of his own life, with no control at all over what he did.