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Wednesday, Mar. 24th, 2010
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Link: "There just has to be something more, you know?"
Academian on LessWrong talks about the apparent disconnect between our experiences and philosophical materialism. 2227 words. The author edited it down to 771 words.

Please comment there or here if you read it - I have my own opinion, but it's not written for me.

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From:baxil
Date:2010/03/24 2230 (UTC)

Tags: "write time: 4 hours"

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Hmm. I read it; I'm processing it. It's certainly interesting conceptually.

I'll own my bias here, because it's arguing for something which (in a roundabout way) challenges my beliefs, so I'm predisposed to examine it more skeptically and aggressively. But my first impression is that I don't think it makes its case.

(Actually, my first impression was, "Xe's arguing in favor of capital-S Science and yet xe's using the analogy that electrons move around in a circle?" ;-p The first half was very talky without saying much. The second half of the essay, the one xe moved to its own page, was MUCH better than the first.)

I'm trying to reduce 771 words into a paragraph; let's see if this seems like an accurate summary: "Consider a quantum of your consciousness. Not the smallest thought/experience you can have -- but the media in which it is propagated/stored. What does that look like? I submit that it is a particle upon which forces act. Therefore let's call it an electron." It's xir thought experiment, and xe's allowed to do that, but there's no compelling reason given to follow xir conclusion from xir premises.

I'll say again the second half is much more readable, and much more productive debate-wise. Invoking neutral monism (though xe didn't bother to explain it) gave me more insight on the argument xe was actually making.

Strongest line of the article:

> You are the way you are because of two things:
> the laws that describe your soul-pieces or particles, whatever those laws may be, and
> the way they're put together,
> and the latter is almost unimaginably more significant!


One of the main issues of materialism is generally its reductionism; this offers a much more compelling version of the philosophy than I've previously seen, and alone made the piece worth its reading time.

But it also leads, in the same section, into the strangest assertion of the piece:

> So being a desk is different from being a human, not because it's made of different stuff, but because the stuff is put together extremely differently ...

If I can put words in the author's mouth, it sounds like they are arguing that perception is an emergent property of matter rather than something injected via "soul"/"spirit"/whatever. This leads to a few possibilities:

1) Desks have the property of consciousness.
2) Humans don't actually have the property of consciousness.
3) There is something about the arrangement of matter into humans that does not exist in the arrangement of matter into desks, which contains the consciousness-property.

#1 isn't too compatible with strict materialism (though pantheists would be happy to accept it), #2 is denial of the premise, and where #3 leads depends on which hairs you split. I don't think it's a far-fetched conclusion to say that due to this "soul factor" the quantum of consciousness is not the same as the quantum of matter, but this whole line of reasoning is fertile ground for the genuine argument to be had over the piece.

Personally, my view of the "soul" is not as something distinct from mind/perception, but as something that's mind-and. Clearly it interacts with mind and matter, or else there would be no mechanism for past-life memories; it simply has some additional property or connection that allows it to influence the nonmaterial and survive physical disjunction.

That's got some substantial common ground with neutral monism, but the differences are also rather large.

Edited at 2010-03-24 10:38 pm (UTC)
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From:packbat
Date:2010/03/24 2259 (UTC)

Re: Tags: "write time: 4 hours"

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I am coming at it from a different direction, of course, but I would be inclined to agree. I actually found Part One somewhat condescending, although the author maintains that it was actually a key step in changing xir belief system. My first impression of the first half was unfavorable, though.

Regarding the "strangest" assertion: I'm not a neutral monist - I'm a physicalist, leaning in a slightly Dennettian direction - but your #3 corresponds closely with my personal view. I don't think I can argue for it, though; I don't even understand why anyone disagrees with my view, which is rather a bad sign. (;

I'll own my bias here, because it's arguing for something which (in a roundabout way) challenges my beliefs, so I'm predisposed to examine it more skeptically and aggressively.


One person's bias is another person's heuristic. :D

But yes, it's important to note when one is more suspicious of counterarguments than supporting arguments - such a stance can leave one unable to be convinced out of an incorrect position. That's not what's happening here, I think.
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From:baxil
Date:2010/03/24 2345 (UTC)

Re: Tags: "write time: 4 hours"

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I don't doubt that the question "what is the quantum of consciousness?" was fundamental in changing their beliefs -- but the way it's presented is tedious and, yes, probably condescending. That's one of the reasons I tried to resummarize.

Re #3 - Again, how you actually interpret that depends on which hairs you split. We're both in #3, but that's because it's a very big basket. ;)

Actually, here's what was bugging me about category #3, and it just took me a while to formalize: if this explanation holds -- then the proposed system takes quanta which all individually contain the consciousness property (by definition of a quantum of consciousness), and can assemble them into desks (things which DON'T contain the consciousness property), which is an illogical result. So unless there's something I'm missing, n.m. either forces some form of pantheism, is using a badly incorrect quantum, or contradicts its own premise.

Right now, I can imagine a few things that would significantly alter my worldview wrt the soul: Strong AI (i.e., true pattern-recognition and formulation of independent thought, not just the ability to pass a Turing Test); a strong demonstrable/testable explanation for a mechanism of consciousness; or of course discovery of a mechanism for human-achievable action-at-a-distance ("magic", though this would have a chance of either reinforcing or correcting). I hope and expect to see at least one of those within my lifetime. In their absence, while I know that science has learned a great deal about the brain, I don't think it has yet understood the mind -- and much less so whatever elusive concept we call "soul".

Edited at 2010-03-24 11:46 pm (UTC)
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From:packbat
Date:2010/03/25 0059 (UTC)

Re: Tags: "write time: 4 hours"

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Actually, here's what was bugging me about category #3, and it just took me a while to formalize: if this explanation holds -- then the proposed system takes quanta which all individually contain the consciousness property (by definition of a quantum of consciousness), and can assemble them into desks (things which DON'T contain the consciousness property), which is an illogical result. So unless there's something I'm missing, n.m. either forces some form of pantheism, is using a badly incorrect quantum, or contradicts its own premise.


I think that's the kind of interpretation which drove my negative reaction to the first half - the "fraction-of-a-consciousness" interpretation doesn't acknowledge the actual qualitative differences between

i*h_bar*d(psi)/dt = H_hat(psi)

and

          SURPRISED by joy--impatient as the Wind
          I turned to share the transport--Oh! with whom
          But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
          That spot which no vicissitude can find?
          Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
          But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
          Even for the least division of an hour,
          Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
          To my most grievous loss?--That thought's return
          Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
          Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
          Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
          That neither present time, nor years unborn
          Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.


It's not very complicated to explain my view - roughly, "human beings are Strong AIs that happen not to be A" - but the way Academian speaks I can't say if we would agree.
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From:roaminrob
Date:2010/03/25 1515 (UTC)
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I'm frankly disappointed that that was posted on lesswrong at all; I don't think it was up to the standards of most of the rest of the site. Aside from whatever point it was trying to make, it lost it in the overwhelming navel gazing. It doesn't matter if it was posted this way because the author finds that it changed their worldview; that's not much better than posting to a rationalist site the verbatim contents of a stream-of-consciousness session that feels to you like it has had a powerful impact on your life. It is unpolished and a good writer just doesn't do that.

That said, I find the idea itself juvenile as well, especially since there's a relatively well-established body of research on the subject of consciousness. While we might not yet be able to point to any single physical thing and say, "Aha! That there, that is consciousness! It is soul, it is reflection, it is jazz!", neuroscientists are gradually zeroing in on the various aspects of consciousness and creativity and better understanding their origins.

Memory, for example: whereas it might once have been a mystical aspect of the self -- something that must be part of one's soul, surely -- there is now a much clearer understanding of where memory exists, and how a lot of it works, and the various effects that different kinds of brain trauma can have on it. This is true also for the sense of sight, and for synesthesia, and ... well, and for many other things that were previously not at all understood. As each of these mystical aspects falls to a better understanding of our own biology, I think the case for a mystical soul overall is weakened.

And more specifically: the author blows it by hand-waving the definition of a "quantum of consciousness". They make exactly the same mistake as would be made if you confused the difference between a molecule and an atom, or the difference between a particle and an atom. It makes no sense to say that an electron is a "quantum of Carbon". The properties of Carbon are emergent from a combination of electrons, protons, quarks, and other particles and forces; the properties of proteins are emergent from a combination of Carbon atoms and other atoms and molecules; the properties of living things are emergent from a combination of proteins and starches and acids and other things; and so forth. Finally, at the far end, you land at a pile of cells, proteins, molecules, and atoms which looks at its own reflection and asks, "What am I made of?"

(n.b.: I used to be much more a mystic than I am now, and mysticism and various types of religious belief still has a dear place in my heart. But, as I seek to understand the things around me, I'm less convinced that those beliefs are correct in an objective, falsifiable, testable sense. In responding to an article on lesswrong, I would adopt a hard-rationalist stance; in responding to something similar from a religious view, my response would be a little different, though substantively the same.)
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From:packbat
Date:2010/03/25 1533 (UTC)
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Yeah, that's a fair reaction. When I read it at first, I wondered if there wasn't something more to it, but it seems there isn't. Just yet another case of incoherence pretending to be insight.
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