Are the Hosts in Westworld conscious?

7 Dec

I wrote this:

The Simplicity Argument for Panpsychism

30 Nov

Common sense tells us that only living things have consciousness. Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences; tables and rocks and molecules do not. Panpsychists deny this datum of common-sense. According to panpsychism, the smallest bits of matter – things like electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.

The main objection one comes across to panpsychism is that it is ‘crazy’ and ‘just obviously wrong’. It is thought to be highly counterintuitive to suppose that an electron has some kind of inner life, no matter how basic, and this is taken to be a very strong reason to doubt the truth of panpsychism. But many widely accepted scientific theories are also crazily counter to common sense. Einstein tells us that time slows down at high speeds. According to standard interpretations of quantum mechanics, particles have determinate positions only when measured. And according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, your ancestors were apes. All of these views are wildly at odds with our common-sense view of the world, or at least they were when they were first proposed, but nobody thinks this is a good reason not to take them seriously. Why should we take common sense to be a good guide to how things really are?

No doubt the willingness of many to accept special relativity, natural selection and quantum mechanics, despite their strangeness from the point of view of pre-theoretical common sense, is a reflection of their respect for the scientific method. We are prepared to modify our view of the world if we take there to be good scientific reason to do so. But in the absence of hard experimental proof, people are reluctant to attribute consciousness to electrons.

But scientific support for a theory comes not merely from the fact that it explains the evidence, but from the fact that it is the best explanation of the evidence, where a theory is ‘better’ to the extent that it is more simple, elegant and parsimonious than its rivals. Suppose we have two theories – Theory A and Theory B – both of which account for all observations, but Theory A postulates four kinds of fundamental force whilst Theory B postulates fifteen kinds of fundamental force. Although both theories account for all the data of observation, Theory A is to be preferred as it offers a more parsimonious account of the data. To take a real world example, Einstein’s theory of special relativity supplanted the Lorenzian theory which preceded it, not because Einstein’s theory accounted for observations that the Lorenizian theory could not account for, but because Einstein provided a much simpler and more elegant explanation of the relevant observations.

I maintain that there is a powerful simplicity argument in favour of panpsychism. The argument relies on a claim I have defended in another blog post (and in much more detail in chapter 6 of my forthcoming book), namely that physical science doesn’t tell us what matter is only what it does. The job of physics is to provide us with mathematical models which allow us to predict with great accuracy how matter will behave. This is incredibly useful information; it allows to manipulate the world in extraordinary ways, leading to the extraordinary technological advancements which have transformed our society beyond recognition. But it is one thing to know the behaviour of an electron, and quite another to know its intrinsic nature: how the electron is in and of itself. Physical science gives us rich information about the behaviour of matter, but leaves us completely in the dark about its intrinsic nature.

In fact the only thing we know about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some of it – the stuff in brains – involves consciousness. And so when it comes to the speculating about the intrinsic nature of electrons (and other fundamental entities) we  face a theoretical choice. We can either suppose that the intrinsic nature of electrons involves consciousness, or we can suppose that they have some entirely unknown intrinsic nature. On the former supposition, the nature of macroscopic things is continuous with the nature of microscopic things. The latter supposition leads us to complexity, discontinuity and mystery. The theoretical imperative to form as simple and unified a view as is consistent with the data leads us quite straightforwardly in the direction of panpsychism.

Whilst in the mind-set of thinking that physics is on its way to giving a complete picture of the fundamental nature of reality, panpsychism seems improbable, as physics does not attribute experience to fundamental particles. But once we realise that physics tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the entities it talks about, and that the only thing we know for certain about the intrinsic nature of matter is that some material things have consciousness, things look very different. All we get from physics is this big black and white abstract structure, which we must somehow colour in with intrinsic nature. We know how to colour in one bit of it: the brains of organisms are coloured in with consciousness. How to colour in the rest? The most elegant, simple, sensible option is to colour in the rest of the world with the same pen.

Panpsychism is crazy. But it is also highly likely to be true.

(This argument is defended at greater length in chapter 7 of my forthcoming book. The argument builds on what has been defended in previous chapters.)

Torn on Corbyn

20 Sep

The most important thing about Jeremy Corbyn is what he symbolises to the tens of thousands of people who have joined the Labour party since he became leader. After years of soulless Blairite pragmatism without principles, Corbyn represents a return to conviction and hope for radical change. In the unlikely event that Corbyn were to lose this week, most of these new members would probably break ties with Labour, and return to disillusionment and a sense of impotence. I don’t think the numbers inspired by Corbyn are enough by a long shot to win an election; but it’s still a huge number of people, and their energy and conviction could be a crucial part of a broader election winning strategy.

But the fact that Corbyn is genuine, and has political views we might like, should not blind us to the fact that he has proved extremely bad at the practical skills of leadership. After many years of being a backbench rebel, he has not taken well to the business of putting out press statements, formulating soundbites, putting together a simple narrative that gives people a sense of the party’s positive vision, etc. Of course, for those of us who like Corbyn, this rejection of conventional media just increases his personal appeal. But I’m afraid in the real world these are things you need to do if you want to cut through to the vast proportion of the electorate who don’t follow lefty politics on social media, and get their news by catching the odd line on the television or radio news.

This is all well-documented in Owen Jones’ heartfelt expression of concern. For me two things summed up Corbyn’s public relations problem. Firstly his demand the day after the EU referendum to immediately trigger article 50. This was a big moment, an important statement, and he clearly hadn’t thought it through, as he now admits. Secondly, in his interview with Owen Jones, Corbyn was asked what he could do to appeal to older voters, for whom Labour is not popular. His immediate response was that older people should be invited into schools to meet young people. At this point I was screaming at my laptop.

And the polls bear out the PR failure. I believe that someone with Corbyn’s politics could cut through and win an election, especially in these post 2008 times when people are seeking radical alternatives. But the reality is that Corbyn has not been on course to do this. Even before the leadership challenge Labour were consistently behind in the polls (occasionally neck and neck, very occasionally a point ahead), and Labour lost seats at the local elections and did significantly worse than under Miliband at the same point in the electoral cycle. An opposition needs to be way ahead at this stage to have a shot at winning. Under Miliband Labour was ten points ahead of the Tories mid-parliament, and still went on to badly lose the election. And Corbyn has had the worst personal ratings of any opposition leader ever. Yes, there has been a media bias against Corbyn. But that’s what’s going to happen if you propose radical alternatives, which is precisely why a radical opposition leader needs to have a high level of skill and ingenuity, especially regarding her or his media strategy. My concerns with Corbyn are not about his politics but his abilities.

And so I’m left not knowing who to vote for. I don’t want to halt the growing people’s movement that Corbyn represents. But I don’t think flesh and blood Corbyn himself is very good at his job. In my ideal scenario, Corbyn would voluntarily hand over the leadership to Clive Lewis in the near future, thus securing the movement under more capable leadership. But unfortunately that option isn’t on the ballot paper. 26 hours left to make my mind up…


Quantitative Analysis of Labour’s Leadership Problem

20 Jul

Guest post by Tom McClelland (a fellow consciousness comrade from the University of Manchester).


Did Blair Lie?

10 Jul

Last week the long awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq War finally came out. I’m sure everyone’s read enough commentary. All I have to add is this wonderful poem by Graham Danzein.


Did Blair lie?

You should expect most politicians’ lies.
And it is such a clanging word to use –
when fibs and fiddles come in every size –
for registering complaint of our bad news:
complicity with criminality;
attraction to intrusive action red;
to fixed intelligence a casualty;
hundreds, then thousands, reliably dead.
To talk of lies belies the truth, for thought
was Op-Ed stated: tyrants, like disease,
no longer shall refuse the western shot,
since freedom disinfects the needle holes.

You should expect most politicians’ lies,
and never trust them to philosophise.

The EU and Democratic Control of Capitalism

21 Jun

I am extremely busy at the moment, finishing my book and giving talks in UK, but I just wanted to write something short in support of the UK remaining in the EU.

My view is that the essential problem of our age is a crisis of sovereignty:

Although in many countries (imperfect) democracy has been achieved at a national level, global capital runs the show at a global level.

Countries are not free to set tax rates and regulation as they choose, because multi-national corporations pit nation and against nation in a race to the bottom. Our economic sovereignty has been handed over the market. The only way to reverse this trend is international co-operation, though institutions such as the EU. The forces of aggressive international tax competition keep economically feasible tax rates artificially low. If countries were to co-operate rather than compete –what I call ‘fiscal solidarity’ – we could eliminate these forces, ensuring a vastly greater proportion of profits go to schools, hospitals, infra-structure and education.

It is true that this is not the direction the EU is currently going in, but visionary economists such as Thomas Picketty (in particular read this manifesto) and Yanis Varoufakis are campaigning for such a radical re-imagining of the EU project. We should remain in and fight for this vision.

In the aftermath of the second world war Europe and the US took small but significant steps moved towards the democratic regulation of capitalism, including (relatively) high income and business taxes and strong regulation of markets. It worked, and lead to the most rapid period of growth experienced in human history, the so-called ‘golden age of capitalism’. People got richer, society got more equal, the 60s happened.

Then came the Thatcher/Reagan ideology. The idea was that if we set capital free by cutting taxes and regulation, we’ll all get richer. The result was huge inequality, mass homelessness, and a string of financial crises culminating in the crash of 2008. The Global Financial Crisis should have been the decisive end of uncontrolled capitalism, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of state run communism in 1989.

But the lessons of the crash were not learned. And we are now living in scary times with people flailing wildly looking for answers outside of the mainstream, from UKIP to Golden Dawn to Donald Trump. The only solution in my view is to revert to the project of the post-war period: democratic control of capitalism. This project requires a radically re-imagined EU. A long shot, but I can’t see any other way forward.

This is why I’ll be voting remain.

Why I don’t believe I’m a Spacetime Worm

31 May

Imagine you’re having coffee with your best friend; for the sake of discussion let’s call her ‘Basil’. According to common sense, the whole of Basil is present with you in the coffee shop. (If you’re facing her then you probably can’t see the back of her head; but it, and the rest of her, are before you nonetheless.) Now there is a peculiar philosophical position – known as ‘four-dimensionalism’ – which denies this datum of common sense. According to four-dimensionalism, you’re sharing the coffee shop with only one tiny bit of Basil. And that’s because Basil is spread out over time; she is a ‘spacetime worm’.

Suppose Basil was born in 1992 and will die (let’s be optimistic) in 2092. If four-dimensionalism is true, then the human being that is Basil is a four-dimensional object stretched out over these 100 years. And thus only one tiny slice of Basil, one ‘temporal part’ of her, is in the coffee shop with you. As four-dimensionalist Ted Sider vividly put it, if you wanted to embrace the whole of somebody, you’d have to cling to them from cradle to grave.

It is clear that four-dimensionalism is counter to common sense. But many philosophers believe that modern physics, in conjunction with various philosophical considerations, give us reason to think that it’s true. In this post I want to share my reasons for thinking the view cannot be true; or at least for sincerely hoping that it isn’t.

The basic argument is quite simple:

  1. My conscious experience is not the conscious experience of a spacetime worm.
  2. Therefore, I cannot be a spacetime worm.

There is at least one thing I know with certainty to exist, and that is my own conscious mind as it is right now. That thing which I know with certainty to exist – my conscious mind – is currently having an experience of a table with a laptop on it, beyond that a window, traffic outside, and a couple arguing in Hungarian in the next apartment. I am certainly not experiencing events of my childhood or of my life at the age of sixty four.

Now consider a Philip-like spacetime worm which is stretched across (let’s hope) seventy or so years of time. That Philip-like spacetime worm is certainly not having the experience I have just been describing; if it is conscious at all it is having some kind of weird consciousness involving all of the experiences of my life. But that is not my consciousness; it is not the consciousness of that thing which right now I know with certainty to exist.

In a recent article Josh Parsons has drawn attention to this point, but offers a solution: I am not a spacetime worm, rather I am a temporal part of a spacetime worm. The thing which has my conscious experience, the thing I know with certainty to exist, is just one tiny slice of the Philip-like spacetime worm stretched over seventy years of time. This is a coherent view, and it might be true. But I hope to God it isn’t. Because on the four-dimensionalist view such temporal parts do not exist for very long at all. Human-like spacetime worms are stretched through fairly long periods of time; enveloping many temporal parts. But the temporal parts which could be plausibly thought to have human experience last no more than a couple of seconds each.

Thus, if Parsons is right, then my conscious mind, that thing I know with certainty to exist, won’t be around in a couple of seconds’ time. It will be replaced by some other conscious mind which will be very similar to it, which will share its memories, but which won’t be me: the thinking, feeling thing I know with certainty to exist right now. This is precisely the content of the fear of imminent death: the fear that I won’t exist in the near future. If four-dimensionalism is true, then there is a very real sense in which I am dying every second.

It is not yet clear whether scientifically-based philosophy can provide us with overwhelming reason to believe four-dimensionalism. Until matters become clearer, I reserve my right to hope that four-dimensionalism isn’t true.