May 17, 2003
Web bodies: What does it mean that we have no body on the Web? It's not a psychological or sociological question. It's - ulp - metaphysical.
Are we simulations?: A philosopher argues that if our species manages to survive long enough, then we're highly likely to be sims. Sounds like stunt philosophy to me.
Special Matrix Issue
I am soooo far behind. I've been trying to get an issue of JOHO out for five weeks, but every time I put aside time to pull the pieces together, something comes up...something urgent but unremunerated. It's been a productive, stimulating couple of months for sure, but also hostile to JOHO, a newsletter that likes it better when I'm in my PJs looking for something to do.
And, of course, the longer I wait, the worse the problem becomes because I have more material to be wrangled into shape.
So, I'm cutting the Gordian knot. Here's a short issue. We all like the shorter issues better anyway, don't we? Please?
The fact that theme of this issue is The Matrix: Reloaded is not meant to imply that I have seen The Matrix: Reloaded.
Special Incomprehensible Issue
...Now Extra Turgid!
In the spirit of at least the first Matrix, this issue sort of makes sense until you think about it. Unlike the first Matrix, I have removed all the entertaining action sequences.
It's a JOHO World After All
Now that the war is over and a new era of peace has descended, the NPR show "Here and Now" is once again running interviews with me on every other Tuesday. Also, the current issue of Wired has a little essay of mine about why leeway is more important than rules. And did I ever mention the Salon article I wrote about David Reed's critique of the concept of radio interference?
The argument over whether real world or online friendships are better ought to be declared a draw. And pointless. Sure, real world friendships are richer experiences than ones squeezed through a keyboard. On the other hand, on the Web we see sides of our friends and relatives that we don't see in the real world. So, which is true-er or real-er is probably not a question that can be resolved, nor does it need to be: if the Supreme Court rules that my online friendships aren't as meaningful as my real world ones, I'm not going to send my online friends curt notes denouncing our relationship.
But there is one part of this discussion that bothers me a lot. In a real-world friendship two bodies are in each other's presence occasionally. Not on the Web. That's a big deal. Bodies are important.
You might not think so if you look at how we often think about them. Today's artificial intelligence mavens — the ones who believe that "mental states" are "substrate independent," like our friend Dr. Nick (see the next article) — echo the traditional body-soul split that puts the "real self" on the side of the soul. The AI dichotomy is even more severe than the body-soul split since the soul was presumed to be the animating principle of the body — what makes the difference between living flesh and dead flesh — whereas for substrate independence, "mental states" are an epiphenomenon of animate flesh, not the reason why the flesh is animate; when Ray Kurzweil's brain state is finally poured into a computer t the computer is Kurzweil's consciousness, Kurzweil's body won't fall over dead, unless God has a wicked sense of humor.
Talk about a digital divide! This is the physical divide, and it's getting worse.1
Of course, some would say it's getting better. But they're wrong. Consciousness isn't just information. We are aware of the world — we are in the world — not as knowers but as want-ers and feel-ers. As Heidegger said, awareness is rooted in the fact that we care about what happens to us. He traced this back to our desire not to die, but somehow forgot to notice the fact that we're embodied: no one can die our death for us because no one can first take our shower for us. Our caring isn't intellectual, at least not first and foremost. It is shaped by the fact that we are our bodies. So, views that think it makes even conceptual sense to talk about disembodied human minds strike me as self-refutingly alienated.
That's why the Web's body-lessness bothers me. I don't like the alienation that thinks humans are essentially minds and only accidentally bodies, but that's precisely what the Web implies. And yet, the Web is great at undoing a related bit of alienation. The odd thing is that this related bit is in fact the same bit. Enigmatic enough for you? Here goes: The biggest nut our culture hasn't cracked is the fact that we live in a world full of meaning that is essentially meaningless.
Let's divide the teams into shirts and skins.
Shirts: Our experience makes sense: when we see a tree, we recognize it as a tree, and we understand it within a complex web of relationships; e.g., as lumber the tree makes sense in a context that includes saws, nails, houses, and the need for shelter. Further, we all recognize that these meanings are dependent on us, have a history, vary from culture to culture, etc.
Skins: We know that the universe is independent of our awareness of it. It doesn't care whether we see the tree as a tree or as a thick earth-hair, and it doesn't care if we use it as lumber or drive our car into it. The round rock we've been born onto is essentially unmeaning. In fact, since it has the last laugh, it's the death of meaning.
Over and over, we've failed to hold these two basic facts of existence together. We've tried lots of different ways. But the two sides just keep pulling apart whenever we think about it. Yet they are remarkably unified in our everyday experience.
And where does this mystery get instantiated closest to us? In our own bodies. Our bodies are both meant and brute. We are our body, we're not our body. Our body is conscious, our body is just sagging carbon-based matter. We understand our bodies so little that we think we could exist apart from them simply by instantiating their form — the constellation of neurons, for example — in silicon. We don't understand the first thing about flesh — how close are we to making artificial life? — but we're willing to assume, blithely, that despite every moment of our experience, flesh is just an accident. No, flesh is a miracle. But we're so alienated that we're ready to write it off as just the clothing our "real" self wears.
So, now we have a new world — the Web — that's nothing but meanings. From this we learn to recognize that what's most real about our world isn't the round rock our experience can never apprehend apart from our experience. That's good because it's true: meaning comes first and matter is only an abstraction from meaning. But the Web also seems to teach us that bodies don't matter, for the Web's a world in which bodies would only be an impediment. That's bad because it's alienating.
Which leads me to one clear and important conclusion: I don't know. "Small Pieces" (p. 138-9) tries to make the case that some of the most important ways that being embodied conditions our experience are distinctively present in our experience of the Web. But the mystery of flesh deserves more than that, and it certainly means more than the simple fact that on the Web no one knows I'm a fat, 52-year-old white guy. Because flesh is where the mystery of meaning and reality occurs, the effect of our finding a home in a world without flesh is ultimately a metaphysical question...the same old metaphysical question that's plagued us for millennia.
(Ten demerits to the first person who suggests the answer is "42.")
I wrote up an overview of what I learned from Heidegger, with special attention to the nature of language, here.
1For a good example, see John Perry Barlow's "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace": "Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion...We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace."
With The Matrix Reloaded just out (and yet so In), it's time to revisit "The Simulation Argument" by transhumanist Nick Bostrom, a paper he wrote while a philosophy professor at Yale (he's now an Oxford philosophy professor). The paper concludes that it's likely that we are all living in a computer simulation. I think it's more likely what this Matrix-y premise really has in common with the movie is that both rely on complex stunts...not that that's a bad thing.
Bostrom begins by stipulating that mental states are "substrate independent": they could be implemented in material other than living flesh. Thus, a computer could be conscious enough to believe that it's in fact a person living in a universe as rich in detail as our own.
Next, he assumes that at some point we'll be able to build computers big and powerful enough to simulate the universe as experienced by a human so well that simulated humans won't "experience any irregularities." (Remember the cat in the first Matrix?) To do this, Bostrom postulates that post-humans (his name for our descendents who have become maximum masters of technology) will use planets as computers able to perform 10^42 operations per second. He writes: "Such a computer could simulate the entire mental history of humankind (call this an ancestor-simulation) in less than 10^-7 seconds."
From these assumptions Bostrom is led to the following:
The core of the argument that this paper presents can be expressed roughly as follows: If there were a substantial chance that our civilization will ever get to the posthuman stage and run many ancestor-simulations, then how come you are not living in such a simulation?
This colloquialism is followed by the formalism of a function that leads to three possible outcomes for humans:
1. We become extinct before achieving the post-human technology overlordism that would permit ancestor simulation.
2. We make it to post-humanity but don't run ancestor simulations, an outcome that Bostrom says would require changes in the basic beliefs and interests of humans since clearly at least some of us would like to run such simulations.
3. The probability that we are living in a simulation approaches certainty.
The third alternative comes about as follows. If we make it to post-humanity and do run simulations, the likelihood that our reality is the real one goes down as the number of "people" living in simulations goes up. If there are a billion simulated people, all of whom, like you, think they're real, then the chances are a billion to one against you're being the one who's not simulated.
Bostrom says that at least one of these three alternatives must be true. And we immediately search for ways out of this logical vice grip.
But we have to be careful because Bostrom doesn't have us in quite the grip we may think. It sounds as if he's saying that if we don't go extinct, then you and I are highly likely to be sims. Some choice! But the first possibility doesn't say that being able to run sims is inevitable if humanity survives. We could fold the first possibility into the second to say:
We don't run sims, either because we can but choose not to or because it turns out that we can't (because we're extinct, planetary computing doesn't work out, "substrate independence" turns out to be false, etc.).
Putting it this way robs the article of some of its rhetorical punch: running sims isn't inevitable if we don't go extinct. In fact, it seems quite reasonable that humans could survive for billions of years and never build sims.
But the real way out of Bostrom's logical conundrum isn't through non-empirical logic. It's by examining the actual probability that each of the premises is true. Bostrom gets cagey here. In his conclusion he says:
In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly...
But his article doesn't treat all three as equal. He gives reasons to think that his #2 isn't true — it'd require changes in human nature — and spends most of his time on the third because it is, admittedly, "the conceptually most intriguing one." But the fact that it's intriguing doesn't make it any more likely. For example...
It's logically true that we'll either go extinct before we all rename ourselves "Amanda Fishfry" or we won't. Since we don't know, we should apportion our credence equally. Nah. Those just aren't equal possibilites. The argument over the likelihood of either of Bostrom's alternatives happening is out of the realm of logic and into the realm of technology, politics, anthropology and morality. Otherwise, we are left with mere logical possibilities - possibilities that are not logically contradictory. "We'll either fly like birdies at noon today or we won't" are equally logically possible, but we know that the righthand possibility is far more likely because of actual stuff we know about the world.
Further, multiplying logical possibilities doesn't increase their probability. For example, it's logically possible that I am in fact Amanda Fishfry who has been hypnotized by an evil Belgian into thinking that I'm David Weinberger. The probability of that being the case doesn't go up as the population of Belgium goes up. And even though the population of China is over a 1,000 times that of Belgium, it is only barely meaningful to say that it's 1,000 times more likely that I'm Amanda Fishfry. No matter how big the population, the possibility that I'm Amanda Fishfry remains as close to zero as any sane person could want. Bostrom's argument only matters to the extent to which we think the events he describes are not merely possible but are probable, no matter how big the exponent is on the stats he uses.
Because this is sort of fun - well, I think so, anyway - let me give you another example. Here's my argument: We humans will either go extinct before we discover time travel or after we do. If we make it to the age when time travel is possible, we'll either refrain (which is unlikely) or at least some of us will do it. If some of us do it, it's quite possible that — given population growth projections — substantial numbers of us will do it over the billions of years in the post-time-travel future. Thus, it is highly likely that most of the people around you right now are in fact time travelers.
Possible? Sure. But first you have to accept that time travel is possible, just as first you have to accept that your life could be a simulation without your knowing it.
Why bother even thinking about it? Writes Bostrom:
Properly understood, the truth of (3), although intellectually intriguing, should have no tendency to make us "go crazy" or to prevent us from going about our business
Thanks, Dr. Nick! But it's not my mental health that I'm worried about. Bostrom believes the odds are quite good that his life is a mere simulation being controlled by creatures from the future. Now that's crazy. It's what Kierkegaard calls "objective madness." But no less mad.
I'm not just name-calling. There is the logical possibility that I'm Amanda Fishfry, but that's not a probability. There's a logical possibility that I'm a simulation, but there isn't a reasonable probability. Not being able to tell the difference is the modern insanity.
Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?
For a commentary friendly to Bostrom's article see here.
For a mail list discussion with Bostrom about the article before he published it, see here.
If you accept that you're likely a sim, this will tell you what ethical rules now apply.
The Wikipedia has a good summary of the article.
Ok, I feel better now. JOHO will be back soon (in relative terms) with a typical unreadably large issue.
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