Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Planning superintelligence - Part III

In response to all the emails I have received within the last few days - there are a few non-absolutes that most of you aren’t thinking about. This is long but READ IT before any of you send me another email on this subject.

Subnote: This is to all my friends going through their many mid-life crises – to all the amateur philosophers and ‘new world order’ entrepreneurs. This has as much to do with developing artificial life as with our day-to-day strife.

Remember, all our (and future ‘conscience’ machines) major decisions are based on philosophy, psychology and our sense of self-worth. This is true. This just is. It who we are … or at least who we THINK we are.

Our decisions – whether about our next job, our next sexual partner, our next vacation or our next stock pick are all based on evolutionary philosophy (and other contemporary factors that acknowledges the limitations on our understanding), the psychological (if not absolute) reality of values, free will and other phenomena and our desire to live as best we can.

Two points:
  • We live by relative values, biological dispositions, upbringing, habit and perceived choice.
  • We don’t know how much we can modify ourselves, what makes up happy or what we value.
That’s it.

Every decision is based on what we do not know; all through humanity and even before. I am stating that there are four absolutes. So. let’s start at the beginning.

1. The origin of the universe cannot be understood

We can see no reason why the universe (and the rules within the universe) exists and it doesn’t seem we will ever find one. Any explanation would simply become part of what has to be explained. Given the way our minds are constructed, no final satisfactory explanation seems possible. Even a newly discovered law of physics would pose the question as to why that should be the case.

So called ‘Big Bang’ theories may explain the origin of the universe but it only provides an explanation up to a certain point in time or perhaps to the beginning of time itself. But it does not explain why there should be space-time or laws of physics that might allow a universe to emerge from nothing at all.

It’s possible that a final explanation for the origin of the universe exists but cannot be known by us. Such an explanation, even if incomprehensible, seems more likely and more desirable than a universe that came into being from simply nothing. Perhaps this is because the explanation at least satisfies the deep-seated belief that everything has an explanation.

The existence of this incomprehensible explanation might be confirmed by meeting an alien species that convinces us there is more to the brute existence of the universe than we ourselves can comprehend.

2. Morality has no absolute rational foundation

There is no chain of reasoning that has been offered or that we can imagine as to why we must adopt any fundamental moral obligation or value over another or any at all. That we generally do (or act as if we do) is clear, as it is that many values and behaviours are shared and others are not.

No convincing argument has ever been published to avoid Hume’s original observation that an ‘ought’ cannot be derived from any ‘is’. Read: that no agreed upon fact of nature can tell us why we are obligated to actually do something.

Let’s face it - moral agreement and disagreement are ultimately arbitrary. We only judge another’s behaviour morally wrong to indicate its inconsistency with our deepest feelings and principles about how people should treat each other such as respect for an individual’s rights, maximizing the greatest good, acceptance of a social contract, a particular sense of justice, the word of God or whatever we believe comprises and justifies that belief.

This does not prevent us from reasoning with those with whom we share at least some values to show that behaviour is in fact consistent or inconsistent with those shared values and such arguments occupy much of what counts as moral debate.

Some disagreements can also be seen as disagreements over the purported facts of the matter of whether animals are conscious, whether one group of people represents an inherent danger to others or over predictions of what will result from a particular behaviour.

3. The origin of human morality lies in human evolution

It seems likely that our moral sense has its origins in evolution. An innate sense of sympathy, tit-for-tat reciprocity and other similar traits probably provided evolutionary advantages when they first appeared, increasing the likelihood of the survival of the individual or perhaps a group with such shared characteristics.

Culture and, more generally, the sort of human brain given by evolution that allows for the creation of culture can then take such morality far beyond what was given in evolution.
And anyways, there isn’t one moral theory.

But could it be possible that there are moral truths even if we cannot establish them by reason alone?

It seems at least possible that some prohibitions could fit this description given how widely shared are both the prohibitions and the belief of the effect on the individual of violating them; or, conversely, that some positive principles really exist, given the broad and cross-cultural desirability of certain character virtues such as courage.

But it seems unlikely that there are moral truths of any kind that apply to all significant behaviours given what we can see of the complex way psychological nature unfolds through biology and environment and the range of opinion on and apparent effects of various behaviours.

But again, moral and philosophical disagreement is mostly psychological in origin. Read this again – this has a huge impact on what we do daily and how our society will develop.

Morality is primarily driven by a range of intuitions and emotions, though moral discourse plays a role in persuading others if not a fundamental one in actually generating moral behaviour. Ethical reasoning usually starts with conclusions, not premises.

But we have to admit that some people have unquestioned beliefs they view as absolute. This will always be. It’s wrong but it will always be.

Why? Well, because unquestioned beliefs benefit those who believe them; especially if you ‘choose’ to believe in an unquestionable belief.

Setting out to believe in something without question is not attractive and probably difficult to achieve, even if it can happen more or less unintended.

Why humans choose to hook ourselves up to ‘experience machines’ (read: religion or other theological beliefs) that could deliver any kind of reality we chose is because we value our experience being perceived as real in addition to the experiences themselves.

Psychotherapy seems preferable for many because they think it effects its improvements by really transforming us -- our beliefs, behaviours and emotions - rather than by giving us a drug-induced experience.

In the end, drugs are not all that different from psychotherapy or any other form of personality manipulation including religious conversion.

4. We don’t really have free will but act as if we do

Brains are conscious but we don’t know how. Consciousness is a puzzle and probably always will be. It seems the brain alone gives rise to consciousness; there is no good evidence for a soul or for irreducible pieces of consciousness making us self-aware but we don’t understand how the brain does it and probably never will.

No matter how much brain function we can imagine understanding and no matter how tightly correlated that function is shown to be with the minutiae of these experiences, there appears to be an irreducible ‘explanatory gap’ between the most we can ever say about neurons or electrical fields in the brain and the tangible experience of reality.

If the brain alone produces consciousness then it seems possible that an artificial machine could be built that would be conscious. But we can’t see how the physiology of the brain could produce consciousness and we may never be able to know how to construct such a conscious machine; except, perhaps, as an indirect or accidental consequence of some construction.

Therefore - we’re unlikely to be able to explain consciousness but machines can and will have a form or mimic consciousness.

As a society, we will have to integrate this form of consciousness under our ‘laws’ and ‘beliefs’ that will contradict our moral and ethical foundations. I predict a social break-down when it finally does happen.


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