On 14 Dec 2008, at 03:30, A. Wolf wrote:

>
> One of the reasons I rarely post to this list is that many people here
> seem trapped in an eternal series of meaningless essentialistic
> debates.


Who ? Where ? How? (I hope you are alluding to the materialists here).




> Nothing objective or conclusive ever comes from
> essentialistic arguments where people bicker over what some word or
> concept "really means".


I agree.
(Mainly, for technical reason in some context essentialistic argument  
can speed-up argumentation, but I agree with you that this should be  
done only if the "essentialist" part of the definition can be  
eliminated, or it could be done provisorily in pehnomenologies).



>
>
> Science used to suffer from this.


Not only science. Also philosophy, religion, humanity. Science is just  
the attitude of being aware that, if we want to understand each  
others, we can only de-essentialize somehow. There is no field which  
cannot benefit from that attitude in the long run.



> About 120 years ago, biologists
> used to argue about the meaning of "life".

> Were viruses alive?

OK, you can see this as an essentialist question.
Is a cigarette pack alive? Well, it has a rather crazy reproduction  
cycle!



> Were
> sperm alive?

Of course biologists today have a clear and definite answer: sperm are  
alive. By all conventional definitions.
"Is a human sperm a human" is much more debated, and some of those  
debate could be related to essentialist misconceptions.



>  What they could or could not consider "alive" was really
> important to the old-school biologists, and there was endless debate
> between them.  (People on both sides of the abortion issue still make
> these kinds of empty arguments.)

Keep in mind you are in applied science. To take already matter for  
granted is, I think, one of the big last essentialist illusion in  
science.
It prevents the questioning on matter and on the origin of matter, etc.


>
>
> But today, biologists don't care what "life" means.

OK.


>  They accept an
> arbitrary definition for "life" because they're scientists, and as
> scientists they realize that the definitions we use do not define
> reality.

All right.


> Definitions of words and concepts are merely tools for
> describing things to one another in a consistent manner.

Indeed.




> Real truth
> stems from examining the relationships between observable phenomena,


Let me cut the hairs: Real Truth stems, HOPEFULLY, from examining the  
relationships between observable phenomena. OK.



>
> by using operational definitions rather than essentialistic ones.


I so much agree with you. That is even exactly why I approach the mind  
body problem through the digital mechanist hypothesis. That hypothesis  
makes possible a purely operational and deductive approach to the  
consciousness/matter relationship problem.



>
> Anything less than this is semantics.


I am less sure why you say this. Semantics are good to provide  
consistency, to show independence of beliefs, etc.


--------------
Let me comment here your "mind and personhood. Was Kim 1" post.



> I apologize if I seemed rude or accusatory...


No need. Essentialism ruins science, even poetry and art can succumb.  
In applied science, you can almost always use essentialism to hide  
deductive consequences. I suspect some people does that often, but if  
you read the posts here, most people are rather careful in that  
setting. Of course most attempt to use a notion of "real matter" is  
bounded to essentialism since Aristotle introduces that idea in  
"science". Modern physics is not yet completely cured.



> Words are very useful, but systematic measurements are better for  
> certain
> things, because the Universe seems to allow us to repeat them.



Of course. But systematic measurements makes sense only to confront  
theories. Which needs words, deduction rule, semantics, etc.



> Issues involving the mind are intrinsically harder to tackle.  Human
> dialogue over the millenia suggests there's some subjective  
> experience of
> personhood or "being" that we all share, and each of us presumably
> experiences something like that.  But we have no way to quantify or  
> measure
> the conscious experience itself.  We're left feeling like there's  
> something
> missing from what we can measure.



Making it a fascinating field. And we have an old theory, Mechanism,  
renewed recently by a couple of major impressive discoveries: the  
discovery by Babbage, Post, Turing, Kleene, Church ... of the  
universal machine, and the discovery by Feynman, Deutsch Beniof  
Kitaev, Friedman... of  quantum universal machine.




> If we're scientists, what we should really be asking is this: why do  
> people
> say all the things they do about conscious experience?


OK. Another questionr, will the self-observing machine says similar  
things. how much similar, how to compare, etc.


> It doesn't seem too
> strange to think that a computer program which has some meta-cognitive
> ability and self-awareness might, as part of the natural output of its
> program, spit out a bunch of symbols related to the "experience" of
> self-awareness itself.


So you are open to the Strong AI thesis. Are you open to the stronger  
hypothesis that *you* could say yes for a graft of a digital  
artificial brain?




> Science doesn't suggest there must be anything more
> to what we are than this kind of output.


Experiments does not suggest per se. But experiments does not prove  
either. It remains an hypothesis. It remains a theory. Experiments  
confirms or falsify. In that particular case, of mechanism, I can  
argue that the hypothetical character has to be insisted upon. No  
machine can know which machines she is and it is in some way a  
personal concern which escapes public or sharable norms. "Yes doctor"  
entails the right to say "No doctor".


> We don't like the idea that our precious consciousness could be a mere
> illusion



I have not the slightest insight of why you say our consciousness  
could be an illusion. I can conceive that any content of consciousness  
is an illusion, but consciousness itself, sorry I cannot.
I can believe that the Universe is an illusion, that time and space  
are illusion, or this or that bosons or galaxies, but how could I  
doubt myself doubting? I try often, but have never succeed, which  
confirms personnally the idea that I copuld be a machine, as self- 
referentially correct machine capable of a very small amount of  
inductive inference can't doubt this. Consciousness is a fixed point  
of doubt, somehow.


> because our sense of self is something we cling to with the fervor
> of evolutionary self-preservation


  ... in some theory, which btw I think mostly correct. Yet I can  
doubt them, where I cannot doubt consciousness. Nor do I find any  
reason to explain away consciousness by an appeal to Darwinian-like  
theories. On the contrary, my whole point is that if we take seriously  
the mechanist theory then it is matter which becomes an illusion, and  
we gat a theory of matter and of the apparition of matter in machine  
observer's mind which does no more need any reification or  
essentialist justification of it. Mechanism extends Darwinism to  
physics. Mechanism, the theory, single out the essentialism in  
Physics, and this in a verifiable way.


> If Everett's is true, you could even
> think about a person as only existing for the barest instant: one  
> single,
> static state, frozen in time, in an infinite mathematical sea of other
> states (well, not really, but roughly).



This is provably so once you assume mechanism (this is the point of my  
explanation through UDA and AUDA). Everett is a consequence, or has to  
be a consequence of mechanism.
You seem to believe that consciousness is an essentialist notion: it  
is not. The question is real for doctor in front of some comatose  
patient. The question is real for saying yes or no for some medical  
operation. The fact that we cannot prove we are conscious, does not  
entail the notion is meaningless. We can build theories and prove  
things with respect of the theories, and verify empirically indirect  
consequences.
Peano Arithmetic cannot prove its own consistency, yet its consistency  
is true.
(I show that consciousness for self-referentially correct machine  
behaves very much like "consistency?". Consistency with an  
interrogation mark. It is a bet on a reality).


> All the experience of travelling
> forward through time could be just an illusion produced by our own  
> memory
> and meta-cognitive ability.

I agree. It is a correct consequence of the MEC hypothesis. But not  
just time is an "illusion of consciousness", space and energy follows.  
Yet the digital hypothesis forces, and makes it possible, to be 100%  
explicit of how those thing appears to mathematical machines, and why  
such illusion persists and obeys laws.


> In a sense, we'd cease to be every instant no
> less surely than if we'd just died.


Again, this follows from the MEC thesis. But today this still entails  
an inflation of possibilities. The physics seems to be too rich,  
except that if we take computer science (and provability logic) there  
are reasons to hope this inflation is bound up by the SWE. But this  
remains to be justified, without postulating Everett or the SWE. See  
the AUDA part of my papers for paving a way. (the UDA part explain  
*why* we have to do that). UDA = the Universal Dovetailer Argument,  
and AUDA = the Arithmetical translation of the UDA.



> So I guess the underlying philosophical question is, what does it  
> mean to be
> a conscious person?


I don't think so. We know well what it means (too well will say some).  
It means to be a subject, to live experience, like the smell of  
coffee, the softness of velvet, the weirdness of dreams and life, the  
hardness of taxes,  and of death of people we care about, it means  
headache, peace, serenity, joy, pleasure, pain. it means to feel  
understanding of a proof, to feel the joy of understanding a joke, or  
of solving a puzzle; It means many things, that we can not share, but  
we can approximate some share through science, art and religion.  
Through movie, novel and theater, etc.
No need to define that. There is only one zombie participating to this  
list, if I remember well ... You need only to believe that you are not  
zombie to understand the argument.

We can share enough on consciousness to be able to reason in a theory.



> Socially it's useful to think of a person as the
> history of that person's memories, but I don't know if there's a  
> useful way
> to think about it scientifically.

Why not? If you discourage science (that is: doubt) in a field, you  
will encourage the authoritative argument in that field.
I think that when science are inexact, they get inhuman in the run.
Science is the art of being able to be ameliorated or refuted. The  
scientific attitude is a modesty attitude.


> Even as I type this, there's no way for
> me to demonstrate that I exist for more than an instant, and I doubt  
> there
> ever will be.

You are right! Then there is a theory where you can prove that there  
is no proof of that this kind indeed. So your feeling here confirms  
that theory (which is MEC). But the theory explains why and how matter  
emerges, so that we can test the theory with more observations which  
are more easily and "scientifically" repeatable and sharable than you  
feeling and intuition.


> As you read this last sentence, please enjoy your first and last  
> moment of
> existence.


Hmmm.... Here you have to think more, at least if your intuition is  
based on the mechanist theory (like it seems above).
You die at each instant, that is correct, but you survive at each  
dying experience too (just think!, or follow the explanation I give to  
Kim, and criticize if not convinced).
That is the probably most disturbing part of the MEC hypothesis (and  
of Everett's QM).
It makes consciousness a prison, as the physicist Otto Rossler sums up  
Descartes so well.
A last moment of existence? That could be wishful thinking.

I don't like this feature of comp and of QM (Everett, SWE without  
collapse) at all, but then science is not wishful thinking, all right?


> ;)  Oh, and happy holidays.


Happy holidays Anna, and thanks for posting. You seems to have a  
rather good intuition of mechanism, but you seem to be not aware that  
by using the digital hypothesis, such intuition can be made part of a  
theory which has many verifiable startling consequences. The theory  
has the advantage of not eliminating knowledge, persons,  
consciousness, and it has the advantage of explaining where matter  
comes from. And that theory can be shown wrong, and so permits us to  
progress.

I hope I will have other opportunities to show how the  
computationalist or digital mechanist hypothesis is really an essence  
destructor, at the ontological level (indeed what really remains are  
numbers and arithmetical relations), all "essence" are  
"phenomenologised" through the possible "number's discourses" about  
their own discourses and silences.

Bruno Marchal


http://iridia.ulb.ac.be/~marchal/




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