Friday, November 27, 2020

Consciousness and the Question of Meaning

The Hard Problem
Identifying Consciousness
Vast Minds
The Question of Meaning

We’ve talked about the Hard Problem of consciousness, and all of the ways it might be resolved. The conclusion that is the most consistent with my experience and knowledge is that consciousness is information changing and interacting with itself in certain ways, and that any time information behaves in these ways, be it in brains, computer chips, or large-scale systems, consciousness is there.

But if this is true, it leads to another question: why does each conscious experience have the character that it does? Why doesn’t chocolate taste blue? Why doesn’t a smooth ball feel like the direction left? Or one that is more easy to wrap our minds around: why does our vision fade to black when things get dark, instead of fading to white?

Religions and spiritual gurus have claimed to know the answers to this question since before history began: conscious qualia are what they are because they tap into a realm of existence beyond the physical where objective, transcendent meaning can be found. Materialists deride this claim, citing all the contradictions between religious and spiritual traditions, and how claims of objective meaning have been used to justify oppression. I am sympathetic to both views, and I think it is important to have waited until after we have talked about all the other topics in the consciousness series before tackling this one, to avoid falling into naive answers.

Let’s consider a question: could black and white have been switched? Could we have evolved such that dark things fade away into whiteness instead of blackness?

If physicalism is true, then whiteness and blackness are patterns in our brains. Intuitively, it seems the answer to the question is yes. It just happened in our evolutionary history that darkness is represented by the color black in our minds, but it could have been white instead. Or any other color, for that matter.

We have some evidence for this. An early psychologist, George Stratton, did a famous experiment where he wore glasses that turned his view upside-down. After a few days, he was able to function as if his vision were normal. When he took the glasses off for the last part of the experiment, he felt like his vision was upside-down again.

This suggests that at least the senses of up and down could have been switched, and if they were, we would not be any different from how we are now. This hints at the possibility that we would not be noticeably different if our sense of up were, for example, switched with the color blue, although it is not proof by any stretch of the imagination.

Alternatively, it may be that swapping around our qualia makes living less efficient, and if it is done too much, might mess up our brains in ways they cannot adjust to. It’s well known that we perceive reality symbolically, with concepts representing other concepts, which are connected to other concepts, in a web that encompasses everything we know and experience.

Much of this is arbitrary, a product of upbringing and culture. But some symbols and their connections seem to come pre-loaded into our brain structure. It might be that the archetypal symbols we inherit genetically are inextricably intertwined with one another and the other functions of our brains that swapping them or changing them too much would leave us non-functional.

The question I am trying to ask is this: are the qualia we experience an arbitrary shake of the evolutionary dice, or did they evolve the way they did because the quale patterns themselves help us to survive and thrive? If the former is true, then existentialism is true: the meaning in life is what we make it. If the latter is true, it opens the door to the possibility that there is meaning outside of us, locked up within the possibility-space of conscious experience, brought into being when it is experienced by conscious creatures like us.

This is all idle speculation. I feel hardly more informed on this subject than the Ancient Greeks who proclaimed everything to be made of water. We do not have the tools yet to investigate this question scientifically, though we may someday. All we have is storytelling and armchair philosophy—both of which I am happy to engage in, writing blog posts and novels and filling them with meaning to the best of my ability. Whether I create that meaning or reveal it, I do not know. But what I do know is that this question will bring me a sense of wonder and mystery to the end of my days.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Hyperspace and Repeating Time – Worldbuilding MoebiusWar

The book I’m writing for National Novel Writing Month this year is a fantastic space opera. And what is a good space opera without faster than light technology?

The Moebiverse uses hyperspace, a fourth dimension of space that exists in addition to the regular 3D universe. This version of hyperspace is curved so that any straight-line trajectory will end up back in the normal universe at another place faster than it takes light to get there through normal space.

Since hyperspace is outside of the universe, it is impossible to run into anything while in hyperspace, unless it is right next to you in hyperspace. This detail was inspired by the Stargate SG-1 episode “Fail Safe,” where they make a hyperspace jump from one side of the Earth to the other. Adding my own twist, you cannot enter hyperspace when the density of material is too high; it can only be done in empty space. This also means that if there is mass where you exit, you will skip like a rock off a pond and exit a few light seconds away.

Faster-Than-Light technology is notorious for being very hard to imagine without allowing time travel, as I’ve explained in this blog post and this video. There is a saying: FTL, relativity, causality; pick two. However, as I explained in this video, there is a loophole. We can choose an objective reference frame, and if this frame is only special when FTL technology is being used, relativity is still preserved in slower-than-light regimes, embedded within a non-relativistic FTL-inclusive space-time-plus.

In the Moebiverse, the objective frame is relative to the Shaper’s Path, a chain of galaxies which move conveyor-style at extremely high speeds through the universe. I do have to think more about this, though, because there are other galactic chains with their own velocities, and I guess an objective cosmic frame through which they move.

Speaking of galactic chains, let’s move on to how time travel does happen in this universe. That’s right, there is time travel, but I didn’t want the characters to just be able to do it whenever and to whenever they want. So I set up the Moebiverse to have repeating history. Every galaxy along the Shaper’s Path is the same galaxy, 400 years apart, and the time it takes to move from one position in the chain to the next is exactly 400 years. So if you can travel between galaxies, it is the same thing as traveling through time.

Of course, traveling to another galaxy is not as easy as traveling to another star. Stars are light years apart, but galaxies are millions of light years apart. If it takes hours to travel to nearby stars through hyperspace, it will take hundreds of thousands of hours to get to the nearest galaxy. That’s thousands of years. So in order to travel through time, you need something else. At this point, I’m still at the “just use a magical artifact” part of the time travel worldbuilding, and haven’t built up much theory around it.

Speaking of magical artifacts, the Moebiverse has djinns (called talias in-universe), objects that go back in time and become their past selves in an infinite loop. For reasons no one knows, these objects grant people magical powers. For instance, the elemental medallions in MoebiusQuest grant the wielder limited control over their respective elements, and in MoebiusWar the evil Spellcaster’s staff allows him to manipulate others’ emotions.

And that’s how the faster-than-light and time travel science works in the Moebiverse. I hope I can finish this book soon; I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and haven’t made the NaNoWriMo word quota at all this past week. Nevertheless, I have pushed on a little further every day and I am determined to continue until the end.

(Last-minute update: I wrote 2200 words yesterday, which is 3x more than my other days this week, so my momentum might make a comeback!)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Building a Teenage Fascist Empire – Worldbuilding MoebiusWar

 As you probably know, I’m writing a book this month, MoebiusWar. It’s like Star Wars, but with different magic and science. The galaxy is being invaded by a powerful totalitarian empire, and the remaining free worlds have banded together into an interplanetary Resistance.

The people of this galaxy have an interesting feature. In the first book, I wanted a believable reason why it was teenagers flying around saving the galaxy, not seasoned professional adults. So I decided they are not humans, but yumans, a species like humans except they stop maturing at around fifteen and stay like that for the rest of their lives. So not only is Tarran an evil fascist empire, it’s a teenage evil fascist empire.

I wanted all the good guys to justifiably be on the same side, which meant I have to make the invading empire clearly and obviously bad. So I took inspiration from totalitarian and authoritarian nations of real life, particularly Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, sprinkling in some colonialism as well.

It began with a superiority complex. The Tarran people believe their culture is the True Culture, their religion the True Religion, and their people the Chosen People. Thus, when they decided to go out and invade the galaxy, they didn’t see it as an invasion, but as a way to spread the Truth and LightTM that their culture has achieved.

Because of this mentality, they are very blind to the social prejudices that are very obvious to anyone looking in, notably race and religion. While officially everyone of all races is treated equally under the law, in practice anyone without midnight black skin is treated as a second-class citizen. As for religion, everyone is institutionally required to practice Ar’eus, with all other sects and religions either extremely frowned upon or outright banned with harsh persecution.

The Emperor of Tarran, who is known as the Spellcaster, has a magic staff that lets him control the emotions of anyone who hears it stamp on the ground. This includes live broadcasts but not recordings, because that would break the plot. Spellcaster uses this power to give everyone in the empire intense happiness when they serve him, and depression whenever they doubt or question. It’s an aggrandized magical version of a cult of personality, when a confidence-dripping, chest-thumping narcissist steps up into a position of power and says “join with me against those inferior people who don’t belong with us,” and large numbers of people lose their minds and follow them.

And finally, the icing on the dystopian cake, informing on your neighbors. Near the beginning of the story, Spellcaster issues an edict that anyone showing signs of depression be turned in to the police for questioning, the rationale being that under Spellcaster’s spell, only those who harbor traitorous thoughts are susceptible to depression. Ain’t that the stuff of nightmares.

That is our dystopian totalitarian teenage fascist empire. The story so far has been a blast to write, with lots of interesting characters interacting with each other and dealing with the war in their own unique ways. If you want to read MoebiusWar, a link will be posted in an announcement blog post when it is done next month. You can read the first book, MoebiusQuest, here for free. Have a good November!

Friday, November 6, 2020

NaNoWriMo 2020: MoebiusWar

November is here once again, and that means it’s time to write another book! National Novel Writing Month is an event where hundreds of thousands of people around the world commit to writing a 50,000-word book in one month. This year is my fifth.

The story I am writing is MoebiusWar, the sequel to my 2018 novel MoebiusQuest. Yes, I know how cheesy these titles are, and it is on purpose. These are stories my friends and I built when we were teenagers, and writing them brings back a flood of nostalgia for those days. When writing them, I let myself loose, throwing in tons of silly things I would never put in a real book, and not worrying too much about the craftsmanship.

In MoebiusWar, Conner and his friends journey to Shaper’s Next, a version of their galaxy 400 years in the future, to find the galaxy at war. The evil Spellcaster, ruler of the Tarran Empire, has the nearly unlimited ability to manipulate his subjects’ emotions to coerce them into serving his conquest. Meanwhile, the remaining free worlds have banded together in an allied Resistance to stand against his tyranny. With space battles, time travel, and magic, this book follows multiple personal stories on both sides of the war. The theme: how to remain positive and enthusiastic when the universe around you is going to hell, and your own emotions are being magically manipulated against you. Perfect for 2020.

In keeping with the tradition of breaking new ground during NaNoWriMo, this is the first sequel I have ever written. I did begin Mind and Mirrors, the sequel to The Mentor, the Hero, and the Trickster, [link] but I have lost interest in that story and I doubt I will ever finish it.

When MoebiusWar is finished, I intend to release it online for free. You can read MoebiusQuest right now, if you like. [link] The current version has been edited slightly, though it is still far from publishable.

In other news, I am about halfway through the second draft of my first real adult novel, An Odyssey through the Stars. The first draft was written during NaNoWriMo last year under the title, Earthbound: A Galactic Odyssey. It will need at least one more structural draft after this one, and another draft for line editing after that. Hopefully, within the next few years you will be able to find An Odyssey through the Stars in bookstores near you.

You can see my progress on MoebiusWar and An Odyssey through the Stars in the bars at the top right of this page. Happy NaNoWriMo to any of you who are participating in it, and I hope your week is at least ok.

Friday, October 30, 2020

This Time It's Not About Politics, It's About Standing Up for What's Right

There are three levels of attitudes toward politics. The first is through the lens of loyalty, of good guys vs bad guys. People who vote for their party because all their friends, family, role models, and authority figures vote for that party.

The second level is realizing that the first level is pointless tribal warfare. All the sensationalism, the rhetoric, the news commentary, it’s all designed to fire people up for the team against the other team. People at this level hold up their hands and say, “I’m not participating in that,” and they don’t vote or they vote for a third option out of protest. These people sometimes try to play peacemaker by trying to convince others that politics doesn’t matter.

The third level is to recognize how politics works. The rhetoric and sensationalism is indeed showmanship, but it has real consequences. The truth of politics is not in the words, but in the actions. People in the third level vote and take political action. Not out of loyalty to a party or a sense of belonging to a group of “good guys,” but from the principles they hold. They might vote for different parties in different years based on which candidates are best in line with their principles. The more people there are in this category, the better democracy works.

In the past my blog posts have been about ideas, not taking action. But there comes a time when it is no longer appropriate to merely play the philosopher. Right now, at the end of 2020, it’s not about politics, it’s about standing up for what’s right.

Real politics is discussing how to let legitimate immigrants in while keeping out the drug and sex traffickers. It’s debating whether we should focus on welfare or employment programs, or whether we should add more categories to the gender section of official documents. What we have in 2020 is not politics, it’s a man standing atop the gutted remains of a Party, happy to light the world on fire if it shows everyone that he is the one on top. That’s not politics, it’s despotism.

An eagle needs a healthy left wing and a healthy right wing in order to fly. Conservatism, at least what it is supposed to be, looks at traditions and the people who want to change or throw out traditions and says, “Hold on, we don’t know all of the consequences of changing this. Let’s be careful.” Conservatism suggests that maybe man-woman marriage is not just a tool for powerful men to remain powerful, but there may be something highly nurturing about growing up with a mother and a father that is extremely hard to find in other situations. Conservatism suggests that there is something about earning a living for oneself that gives a life purpose at a level that cannot be found when receiving charity or welfare. Conservatism says we should remember the history of ideas that brought us here and remember it well, because there are truths buried within it that we do not fully understand.

It is not conservative to put down protests with violent police force. It is not conservative to brush off major problems like hundreds of thousands of Americans dying from a disease or the global temperature increasing enough to have effects that scar the planet and humanity for centuries. These are not conservatism; they are cultish.

I don’t know if there is anything salvageable of the Republican Party. Perhaps the Democratic Party could split, and the Joe Bidens could be our conservative party and the Bernie Sanderses and Elizabeth Warrens could be our progressive party. Either way, something drastic has to happen to our political system to get us back to a healthy place.

Now is a difficult time to be conservative. Look around. Are the unknown risks of change so great that it’s worse than the trajectory we are currently on? It is good to be cautious and not to rush things, but there comes a time when your house is on fire and you have to get out. Enough with the dead weight stubbornness daydreaming about turning the clock back and making America “great” again. If we want to get back to a healthy political climate, we need to cut this brain tumor out of our country’s head. The time for change is now.

Friday, October 23, 2020

A Perfectly Rational Being

Over the years, I’ve played with a thought experiment: suppose there were a purely rational being who had no instincts, emotions, or irrational stimuli of any kind. Something we imagine robots and Vulcans to be like. What would such a being do? In the time it has taken me to get around to writing this, I have gone through three phases of what I thought the answer would be. So let’s dive in and imagine what a person/creature/AI would be like if they were perfectly rational.

Phase I: The Rational Statue

When we talk about rational behaviors, we usually mean things that advance our careers or keep us alive. That’s logical, right? But we run into a problem: the is-ought gap. Reasons to do things ultimately come down to instinct, not factual observations. Sure, we may need to stay alive in order to do anything, but without any drive to do anything, we have no reason to keep ourselves alive. Under these conditions, self-preservation is no more rational than self-destruction.

You might ask whether we already have perfectly rational beings in artificial intelligence. Isn’t a robot perfectly rational? Not at all. A computer program does not think about what it is told to do, it simply runs its programs, taking input and giving output. It is one hundred percent instinctual, not rational in the slightest. A perfectly rational being would indeed have the ability to give you the answer to any math or logic problem quickly and correctly, but, having no motivation, they wouldn’t, because they would have no reason to do so. A perfectly rational being would do absolutely nothing.

Phase II: The Rational Egotist

Then I thought of something that turned this entire argument upside-down: a perfectly rational being would realize that it might be modified sometime in the future to have instinctive, irrational motivations. Therefore, not knowing what those motivations would be, it would act in such a way as to keep as many options open as possible.

To start with, this would mean staying alive. It would also accumulate resources, including wealth, influence, and information. It will make deals and build trust, do favors so it can call in returns later. However, it will also screw others over when it calculates a sufficiently high probability to get away with it. After all, its ultimate goal is to open up future options; it has no sense of morality nor respect for laws or social conventions.

Phase III: The Rational Altruist

However, there is yet another major factor that turns everything upside down. A being who is perfectly rational will understand that individuality is an artificial construction. In a sense, every living thing that exists is an extension of one person, the universe. Thus, a perfectly rational being would not have to wait around for some unknown motivation in the future; it already has motivations, the motivations of other people.

Thus, a perfectly rational being with no motivations of its own would work for the benefit of others. It would not follow the whims of a master or people ordering it about, nor invest in caring for one particular child or homeless person at a time. Rather, it would be impartial and utilitarian, putting its efforts where they would do the most good. To that end, most of its efforts would be focused on medical research, alleviating extreme poverty, eliminating monstrosities like dictatorships and factory farms, and preventing extinction.

So that is how I believe a perfectly rational being would behave. The phases are hierarchical, that is, each phase takes into account all of the information of the previous phases. It’s like changing religious or scientific paradigms, the being will not slide back into a previous phase unless they receive new information that takes into account all of the information they already have. I don’t know how practical this thought experiment is, but at least it was fun. Maybe I’ll write an artificial character who goes through these phases in one of my books someday.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Identity, Self, and Other

The Hard Problem
Identifying Consciousness
Vast Minds
Identity, Self, and Other
The Question of Meaning

Suppose there is a boat. As the boat goes on many voyages, its pieces wear out one by one and are replaced. Eventually, there are no original materials left. But the pieces are saved, and they are all put together into a second boat. Which of these two boats is the original, the one that continued to voyage, or the one made out of all the original materials?

This thought experiment is called the Ship of Theseus, and it goes back to Ancient Greece. Its answer, as we talked about in our discussion of reductionism and holism, it that which ship is the original is completely arbitrary, we decide. Objective reality has nothing at all to say on the matter.

That’s fine for inanimate objects, but it can be a lot harder to swallow when we try out the same idea on human beings, particularly ourselves. Every few years, the atoms and molecules that make up our bodies are cycled out and replaced, even in our neurons and other cells that stick around. Imagine if all of the atoms from you of ten years ago were reassembled into a new person, whose consciousness picked up as if waking up after going to bed ten years earlier. Which of these two people is the real you? If we want to be consistent with the Ship of Theseus, the answer is completely subjective. Both versions of you have equal claim to be the original, as was discussed in my YouTube video on the subject.

This feels like nonsense. After all, you know that you are you. This other person is clearly someone else, a new person with false memories. But this concept of a continuing self which is distinct from all others is an illusion. To demonstrate this, let’s ask what a self is supposed to be.

If the self is not found in the matter that makes up our bodies, maybe it is in our soul, a self-contained essence of identity that remains with us, unchanging, from the moment our lives begin until we die. However, as science continues to develop better tools to look into the body and the brain, we understand better and better how the mind works, but there is still no sign of a soul to be found. So it appears that souls are a relic from mythology and folk wisdom, and unless souls are a metaphor or an abstraction of something else, we have no reason to believe they exist.

Perhaps what the soul is an abstraction of is the continually evolving process of consciousness over time. Except our consciousness is not continuous. It turns off when we are asleep, and turns on again when we dream or wake. And we have lapses in consciousness now and then even when we are awake. To top it off, the experience we think of as “this present moment” is actually the result of the brain ordering and constructing an experience based on sensory information it received a fraction of a second ago over a period of a few milliseconds.

With some meditation practice and an open mind, we can discover that our conscious experience is not a homunculus, an internal receiver of perceptions and generator of thoughts and will. Instead, our conscious experience is the perceptions, thoughts, and will, which arise, exist for a moment, and then disappear again. Thus, the consciousness we have now is different from the consciousness we had ten years ago, or even ten minutes ago.

Furthermore, rare phenomena show that our consciousness is not necessarily bound within our bodies. I’m not talking about out-of-body experiences or anything like that; I mean things like connecting brains together to make a collective consciousness. Right now, we have very few examples of joined or split consciousnesses. We would hope so, because performing experiments in this area would be the ultimate personal violation.

Nevertheless, we do have a few points of data. Patients of split-brain surgery who have the two halves of their brain separated can develop two distinct personalities, one in each half of their brain. In terms of joining consciousness together, we have cranially conjoined twins whose brains are connected, and, to a degree, these twins share consciousness.

Science fiction goes crazy on these ideas with thought experiments of collectives, groups of people—perhaps hundreds, thousands, or even millions—who link their minds together and become one giant person. Famous examples include the Borg in Star Trek and the Formics in Ender’s Game.

In these stories, it is sometimes possible for an individual body to disconnect from the collective and become an individual person. But if that person has been in the collective for long enough, they are not the same person they were before they joined. Rather, they are a small version of the collective who now only has access to body and one set of senses.

Thus, it would appear that consciousness is not made up of distinct units, “selves,” that can link together and separate, but it is more like a liquid, which can join, mix, and separate like droplets and bodies of water. This analogy especially makes sense when thinking about the distant future when the vast majority of conscious life will live within an immense virtual reality network.

Coming back to us, here, today, we may see ourselves in a new light. Now, this model we’ve always taken for granted of distinct individuals, of you, me, that person, and the other person, does not seem so set in stone. We don’t all have our own unique, fundamentally separate existences from one another. Rather, it’s almost as if we are a collective already. All living things, lakes of consciousness. One, but for the space between us.

In this view, it can be said that there is life after death. Not an afterlife, nor is it quite reincarnation; it’s all the people and animals who are still alive. I am you, and you are me. We are the universe, and when one droplet of consciousness evaporates, there are still an ocean’s worth remaining.

I realize that a lot of what I said here sounds pretty weird, and I admit it does stray quite a bit beyond the realm of well-grounded science. But it’s not just something I thought up out of nowhere, nor am I repeating something I heard someone else say. I did take some liberties with narrative interpretation—it’s entirely subjective whether we consider everyone today to be a collective or individuals—but the liquid-like interpretation of consciousness is the most logically consistent analogy I can think of given my knowledge of current science and philosophy.