I’m Glad They Agree

If you express an opinion and somebody disagrees, they’ve given you an opportunity to change your mind. If the other person’s opinion is better than yours, you’ve learned something. That’s a positive outcome. There can also be a positive outcome if the other person agrees with you. It makes you feel good (although if you were wrong to begin with, agreement will just make the situation worse). 

I had two instances today where somebody agreed with me. This made me feel good (I’m going with the assumption that I wasn’t wrong to begin with).

First, the philosopher Justin E. H. Smith criticized the idea that we may be living in a computer simulation, in response to David Chalmers’s book Reality + (my contribution, not as elegant and with a lot fewer words, was “Reality, the Virtual Kind and the Unlikely Kind”):

According to Chalmers’s construal of the “it-from-bit” hypothesis, to be digital is in itself no grounds for being excluded from reality, and what we think of as physical objects may be both real and digital. One is in fact free to accept the first conjunct, and reject the latter, even though they are presented as practically equivalent. I myself am prepared to accept that a couch in VR [virtual reality] is a real couch — more precisely, a real digital couch, or at least that it may be real or reified in consequence of the way I relate to it. But this does not compel me to accept that the couch on which I am currently sitting is digital.

There is a persistent conflation of these two points throughout discussions of the so-called “simulation argument”, which Chalmers treats in several of his works but which is most strongly associated with the name of Nick Bostrom, who in 2003 published an influential article entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” … Here I just want to point out one significant feature of it that occurs early in the introduction and that the author seems to hope the reader will pass over smoothly without getting hung up on the problems it potentially opens up. Consciousness, Bostrom maintains, might arise among simulated people if, first of all, “the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained”, and, second of all, “a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct.”

What is this widely accepted position, you ask? … It is, namely, the view, which Bostrom calls “substrate-independence”, that “mental states can supervene on any of a broad class of physical substrates. Provided a system implements the right sort of computational structures and processes, it can be associated with conscious experiences.” Arguments for functionalism or computationalism have been given in the literature, Bostrom notes, and “while it is not entirely uncontroversial, we shall here take it as a given.”

It is of course possible that conscious experiences may be realized in a silicon substrate or in a complex arrangement of string and toilet-paper rolls, just as they may be realized in brains. But do we have any evidence that the arrangements that we have come up with for the machine-processing of information are in principle the kind of arrangements that, as they become more and more complex or fine-grained, cross over into conscious experience? In fact, there is very good reason to think that the appearance of consciousness in some evolved biological systems is the result of a very different sort of developmental history than anything we have seen so far since the dawn of artificial intelligence in the mid-twentieth century….


Second, Michael Tomasky of The New Republic responded to the Republican National Committee’s characterization of what happened on January 6, 2021, as “legitimate political discourse”:

It’s now official: The Republican Party is no longer a political party in any known American sense. Honestly, it hasn’t been for a quite some time, but with last week’s resolution condemning Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the party made it official. We don’t always grasp the historic importance of events in real time, but rest assured that future historians, assuming the United States remains enough of a democracy to have honest ones, will point to Friday, February 4 as a pivotal day in the party’s war on democracy….

The money quote in this episode is the line in the resolution that condemns Cheney and Kinzinger for “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” This is right out of 1984. When The New York Times reported that this meant that the RNC was referring to the January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” RNC gauleiter Ronna McDaniel howled that of course she has condemned violence, and the legit discourse business referred to other stuff.

What other stuff, it’s hard to say. The text of the resolution didn’t leave room to interpretation. And the select committee on January 6 is not exactly investigating Republicans across the country who are, say, protesting mask mandates. In fact, it’s not investigating any kind of “discourse.” It’s looking specifically at actions by people on and around the date of the infamous riot….

The truth here is obvious: The party is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The obvious intent with that sentence is to minimize and legitimize what happened on January 6…. And now that T____ himself has said he may pardon everyone charged with January 6–related crimes, it was clear that McDaniel saw her job as aiding [him] in that project: If it’s the official party line that the insurrection was legitimate, then there’s nothing outrageous about pardons.

The Anti-Defamation League recently released a report finding that more than 100 Republican candidates on various ballots in 2022 have explicitly embraced extremism or violence … This is not some aberration that time will correct. It is a storm that will continue to gather strength, because it’s where the action and the money are, and no one in the GOP is opposing it—except the two people who were just essentially read out of the party….

The Republican Party … has become an appendage of T____ dedicated to doing his will and smiting his enemies. I had to laugh at the part of the resolution that denounced Joe Biden for his alleged pursuit of “socialism”…..

The Republican Party is further down the road to fascism than the Democrats are to socialism. And when, by the way, might Democrats start saying that? What are you waiting for, people? How much deeper does this crisis have to get before you start telling the American people the truth about what the GOP has become? It’s time to say it and to put Republicans on the defensive….We are at a moment of historical reckoning…. But Americans won’t know it, Democrats, unless you tell them.


In other words: “When Do We All Get To Say They’re Fascists?”

Reality, the Virtual Kind and the Unlikely Kind

David Chalmers, the philosopher whose gravestone will probably say he came up with the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness”, has a new book out. It’s called Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. From the publisher’s blurb:

Virtual reality is genuine reality; that’s the central thesis of Reality+. In a highly original work of “technophilosophy,” David J. Chalmers gives a compelling analysis of our technological future. He argues that virtual worlds are not second-class worlds, and that we can live a meaningful life in virtual reality. We may even be in a virtual world already.

The Three Quarks Daily site linked to an interview Prof. Chalmers gave to promote the book. 

When discussing simulations (like what we could be living in already), it’s helpful to keep in mind that there are at least two kinds. The first kind is what’s usually called “virtual reality”. It can be described as “not physically existing as such, but made by software to appear to do so”. Despite what Chalmers’s interviewer says, this type of virtual reality doesn’t raise a bunch of deep philosophical questions. The machines that created the Matrix in the movies did an amazing job, but from a philosophical perspective, so what? When he was plugged into the Matrix, fully immersed in what Chalmers calls “digital reality”, Neo was still an organism with a physical body. In the future Chalmers envisions, many of us might spend most of our time in a “place” like that. But lots of people play video games. They make friends playing those games, they spend money, they laugh, they cry. So what?

The second kind of virtual reality would look like the Matrix, but it would be very different, so different that it would deserve to be called something other than “virtual reality” (maybe it already is). It’s the kind the philosopher Nick Bostrom referred to in his famous Simulation Argument (quoting from a 2003 article): “You exist in a virtual reality simulated in a computer built by some advanced civilization. Your brain, too, is merely a part of that simulation”.

Bostrom’s argument assumes that “what allows you to have conscious experiences is not the fact that your brain is made of squishy biological matter but rather that it implements a certain computational architecture . . . This assumption is quite widely (although not universally) accepted among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind”.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t see any reason to think that consciousness is purely computational and that it could be created on a computer. Presumably, a being could be made out of silicon or whatever and be conscious (feel pain, for example) but I believe it would still require a physical body. Chalmers thinks otherwise, that “algorithmic creatures” that only exist as software running on a computer could be conscious. That assumes something about consciousness that isn’t necessarily true and is much different from saying you could build something like a human using non-standard material.