Tag Archives: Philosophy

On Dying. A Message From Scientific Thinking.

Having spent several years of my life dealing on the frontline of death, it is no shock that the very nature of the end is one that I have often considered. As an atheist, the very idea carries perhaps more weight than for those lucky enough to hold beliefs in a second and eternal life.

But regardless of introspective journies, or indeed the hard moments where I have lost patients and family, there is some universality to the finale.

Beyond the Curtain

To consider the nature of death, one may begin with what we consider life. And although neurobiology may teach us many lessons about the beginnings of what we consider ‘consciousness’, it is clear that there is a difference between the passive actions of molecular machinery and the purposeful meanderings of creatures such as we.



DNA, the very building blocks of species innumerable and immemorable, has no memory beyond its structure, which within itself is only transient and ‘dies’ at the impromptu whim of little force. You would not call it alive in any real sense, any more than the bark of a tree or the ebb of a river. Motion does not mean life, only motion.

The next step up, the interaction between chains of organic molecules guided by chemical gates and gradients, is just as robotic and carries with it no semblance of intelligence. It is us that have defined agency in the evolutionarily derived actions of physics and chemistry. Once again you would not ask a melting lump of sugar how it feels.

So to jump to a creature that we consider alive we must allow for something different, the ability for an organism to not only respond to something outside of itself, (like simple molecules will,) but to manage its response over time.

It is within the structure of a third order neuron system that we begin to see feedback loops that form the basis of sentience, that is the binary form of what, as humans, we owe our special experience to. It is the macrocosmic version of these loops, interacting at incredible speeds, that give us the illusion of what we call ‘mind’

And regardless of our supposed consciousness, which until recently many believed signified some transcendental soul, we can reduce not just our minds, but our entire existence, free will included, to the non-sentient interactions of molecules carved into man-shape.

Considering this, the idea of death becomes one of both greater significance, and lesser all at once.

Before the Gates

So assuming that Science can provide explanations of how we have come to be, think and live, it is fair to demand that it provide an explanation for death. The biological model of death is quite simple; the cessation of an organism in all forms of modality except physical, which itself eventually passes with the sands of entropy. There is no room for a soul, which ceases as the machinery of the body grinds to a halt.

Whatever consciousness, thoughts or soul that once was disappears, a temporary illusion of apparent sentience maintained by the limited capacities of our brains, tempered and reminded of its presence by our nervous systems, intrinsically tied to the physical form in which it carries out it’s life. Simply put, the ‘soul’ is nothing more than a function of the soulless.

But as thinking creatures, who have achieved so much as to fly jets and write poetry, the very concept of death, beyond a question mark or ancient book, eludes us.

To ask what lies beyond, how it may ‘feel’ and what it ‘means’ is a question that Science itself has not answered beyond the retrospective analysis of those who have experienced near-death experiences. And even then, the ‘white light’ and ‘feelings of warmth’ so often attributed to a deity can be explained the death secretions of the brain in the form of DMT and other chemicals. Once again, we have applied agency and purpose to the banal.

To consider the true feeling of ‘non-being’ is simply beyond us. It is like asking what life felt like before you were born. I have no memory of the 13 or so billion years prior to my birth and will have no experience of the trillions after my death.

The experience, unless I am dramatically wrong in my atheism, will be very much the same; beyond comprehension, as there is no mechanism by which we may comprehend it. We are asking a rock to know itself.

As for purpose of life and death, there is likely none beyond which we choose. And if free will is an illusion, which many believe it to be, then the choice itself is mute. The purpose of life is simply existence but without agency or overriding design.

Freidrich Nietzsche may have come the closest in his estimations, in that purpose cannot be known as the universe itself is unknowable, and although science has taught us much about the universe, it has only shown us what and how, not ‘why.’

After the Fall.

To some, the idea of death is one of immense tribulation. I would agree myself, and no wager as simple as Pascal’s, or approach as defensive as agnosticism, changes that. The realisation of the mechanical nature of the human body and the illusory spirit is one that could, if we so let it, steal our significance in both the personal and cosmic sense. Such intellectual discussion means little to the lady dying of cancer, or the old man of kidney failure.

Such arbitrary ruminations are the gift of a far-off death, the distance of time or reality, the time to muse. But upon approaching it, either in hours, days or weeks, the intellectual arguments may provide no solace. In this sense, I very much understand why so much of the world holds on to the safety of heaven, because the reality of randomness and pointless may make life seem unfair.

Why live without purpose, why die at all?

However, even the most logical deductions about the nature of death and it’s purpose can reveal something truly astounding. And that is that if the universe is without agency or purpose, and we are nothing but illusory consciousness formed of asentient molecules, then our lives are incredibly worthwhile.

In the vast cosmos, we have sprung to life, and death is not some great messenger or test of faith, but simply the end of that cycle.

Death is neither bad nor good beyond human morality, but a cessation. The molecules in our bodies will not feel the end, or eulogise the passing of a ribosome. But those we leave behind will greave the loss of kin, another one so unlikely to have experienced life.

For me, as cynical as I am, there is a great beauty around the end of things. It teaches us, perhaps not all at once, that the true value of life is in its living.

We don’t require purpose, just the ability to define it. We don’t need free will, just the illusion of agency. We don’t need an eternal life, just the moments that make us forget about the inanity of it all.

And being a doctor and an atheist, death has taught me this; the end is common, constant and beyond knowledge, but a good life is not. So enjoy every moment, keep writing poems, keep flying jets, keep asking questions and, for as long as you can, breathe.

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

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In Reality Just A Dream? (You Will Need A Cup Of Coffee For This One!)

You can’t leave the park if you stay on the rides boy. Stop being a tourist and take a look behind the curtain.”

The idea that everything we know ‘is a lie’ and we have been dreaming all of this time pervades culture en masse; From Plato to the Wachowskis, the possibility that we are all collectively experiencing a simulated reality is a juicy subject for discussion. But there is something to this idea. If we are in a simulation, how would we know? How might we begin to prove this? Defining a hyperobject (or a hyper-hyperobject), such as reality itself, is difficult. We come up like the fish searching for water. It is everything to the fish,  so where do we even begin with being?

A Philosophical Dream

The human mind is not equipped to answer the big questions very well. In fact, our very logic is based on very restrictive parameters.  Our understanding of distances, time and flying things is limited to what we see day to day. This is why we are easily tricked by the massive or very small, our brains aren’t evolved to make sense of the information. Or indeed, there has been no demand to do so that restricts our survival as a species. And answering whether our Universe is in fact ‘real’ isn’t a question that would have vexed our ancestors, so its little wonder we have trouble with it. Today’s big questions confuse yesterdays brain.

Questioning the nature of reality is one of those big questions. Take optic illusions and hallucinations for example, or the auditory hysteresis as best demonstrated by ‘Laurel’ or ‘Yanny‘. We have a limited number of sensory cues which we can attach to our environment. When we try to cut corners, our brains attempt to fill the gap and make mistakes. Our brain will attempt to make sense of ambiguity by pushing previous experience on to it. VSauce has a great video explaining how and why this can happen, so take a look. So knowing this, where do we know where objective reality stops, and our own shortcuts begin? What is truly real outside of our own interpretation?

simulation reality descartes science physics philosophy dream

Rene Descartes – Philosopher and Pioneer 

This idea a, that reality is not ‘real’ is not so foreign to us as it may seem. The first consideration of this with which most people are familiar is perhaps the cogito ergo sum of RenĂ© Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am‘. This simple statement was the basic building block Descartes used to establish his metaphysical philosophy. He reasoned that, as we know the senses can be misleading, everything which he perceives may be the illusion of a clever and malign demon. If this is the case, he would have difficulty in establishing which percepts were real and which were not, as each one might be designed to fool him. Although this touches on the idea of a ‘false reality’, it appears to appeal to some higher power ‘tricking us.’

Although a powerful idea, it doesn’t answer the question objectively but actually throws another layer of faith on the issue.

Descartes’ response to this unusual problem was to throw the whole thing out; he only knew that he was thinking. Thus, Descartes knew that he existed but about the rest, he could not sure. This was a logical move, as he realized that objective realities would be consistent regardless of who perceived them, only the inferred reality (a very personal one,) would be his alone. Obviously, we can all infer the same when seeing an apple (and tend to, its red, hard, tasty,) so there is something consistent. But even then, the ‘essence’ of the object considered may be inferred differently by everyone, and you would never know quite how (i.e is my red your red?)

This was termed methodic doubt or Cartesian scepticism. The take-home message is that seeing is not believing. The extension of this, Solipsism, is the belief that you are the only aware rational agent (agent meaning one capable of observing and influencing.) From a simulation perspective, it means that you are the only ‘real’ person. Of course, our video games are populated by Non-Player Characters (Cortana in Halo, Navi in Zelda.) If we are in a simulation, it is more likely that you are not ‘real’. Why would a simulation be built for us alone?

Of course, this is a basis for a line of thought, not an encouragement to live your life in this way. People still look both ways before crossing the street. An NPC is not benevolent and doesn’t exist to help you by nature (i.e any character who attacks you in a game.) Solipsism, as understood by Karl Popper, is not a falsifiable hypothesis. Traditional scientific method seeks to disprove ideas via a null hypothesis (the chance that the association between X and Y is due to chance). Solipsism cannot meaningfully be disproved in this way (the death of the main agent ends the argument, one way or the other). This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, but that solipsism is in the hands of philosophy over science.

Which is an uncomfortable position to be in. If you can’t objectively prove it, or at least reliably disprove it, nothing can be concluded. Popper himself is aware of this and forms the basis of his work.

We can approach this problem from the other direction; that is to say, by considering the ethics of simulation after the fact. As software becomes more advanced and hardware becomes more capable, our simulations or the possibility of any simulation becomes more sophisticated. The simulated minds we might develop could be more complex and we have every reason to suppose that we might pursue this. The map might start to look more and more like the territory.

science popper simulation descartes dream

Karl Popper – Father of Falsificationism and proponent of reasoning

These sim people (sims?) would have behavior like ours, they might even have thoughts like ours. At some point, they might become indistinguishable from us and there are ethical considerations to running this. We do not consider the ethics of running a sim, thus any advanced civilization is unlikely to do this either. The economist Robin Hanson recommended that anyone living in a simulation better be as entertaining as they can, otherwise they might get switched off. An uncomfortable thought. So if we are simply lines of code, it makes sense for that code to be useful. Although we can see that ‘bad humans’ (Hitler as a prime example,) seemed to operate for years before ‘termination.’

Clearly, either this isn’t true, or Hitler’s suicide was a programmed termination carried out as volitional. We couldn’t be certain either way. Popper once again becomes very relevant, as we have no way of proving any hypothesis of even this one act.

These sim people would be ‘p-zombies’ or philosophical zombies. A p-zombie is not a horror movie villain. They look like people (or sims) and we cannot tell them apart, even from their reactions. If you tickle them, they laugh and if you pinch them, they would cry. However, they do not feel that indescribable sensation (‘qualia’). At some point, surely this becomes indistinguishable also? A simulant human such as found in Blade Runner was virtually human, and Robin William’s Bicentennial Man was actually declared human as ‘he’ became ethically synonymous with his organic peers.

bicentennial man williams science dream plato descartes

Robin William’s Bicentennial Man achieved human status through consciousness.

So we have established a reasonable proposal that these simulations are possible (although not provable only within philosophy.) We have now a frame of understanding with which to appreciate this issue. Next, we must turn theory into practice. How do we find the proof?

 

A ‘Physical’ Dream

The best way to analyse the problem of our potential simulation is to look at how we would do it. We need to examine how we build simulations and models. What limits do we put on them and how does that map onto what we have observed in the universe? After all, we have built simulations to model economic or anthropological behavior and VR goggles encourage us to leap into cyberworlds, is it that unrealistic that these might become more sophisticated and take on lives of their own? And what would reassure us that we weren’t indeed sentient ‘code’? Are we virtual reality convinced of physicality because of that same programming?

This prospect is not that unrealistic according to Hans Moravec, an Austrian futurist. Eventually, a civilization of some sort or another will become highly technologically advanced. This civilisation will be able to mass produce self-contained virtual simulations. They might do this for entertainment purposes or to model certain situations, as we do. These widespread simulated realities may become so numerous that any thinking entity has a greater chance of being inside one than out. Simply put, if the code can perceive and experience, how would it know if it was real or code? And if most of the ‘entities’ in a given universe are code, statistically you are more likely to be one of them.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist, George Smoot, encourages us to examine the basic physical constants which govern the universe. In his opinion, the fact that our environment is quantized (‘fuzzy on a small scale’, think of it as pixellation) so that physics works differently on a large scale compared to a small one may be a way of saving space an computational power. This discrete-ness is our binary. Basically, the way the Universe works, the rules it plays by, aren’t there by chance. They are created by a programmer, and that the base levels of ‘reality’ such as quantum physics, are an example of this.

dream plato science simulation

In physics our universe is quantised. 10 points to Gryffindor if you get the joke

Its just data, and since the small doesn’t reliably approximate to the big (i.e no one has developed a Unified Theory of quantum vs classical physics, it might be because a programmer has made a subroutine to relate the two to save data.) He also points to entangled states as another ‘simulation memory’-saving device. Other people take the computer science element a little further and examine Planck lengths, absolute zero and the speed of light. These unbending limitations could also better enable such a simulation to run smoothly.

So what we know about writing code, the concessions we make for ‘functionality’ may be present in the Universe itself. This is disconcerting because it speaks of ‘design.’ And we can see it. Its like Halo’s Master Chief realizing that the loading screens are actually real.

Tying The Physical To The Philosophical – A Dream Becomes Real

Back to philosophy again with the anthropic principle; the idea that the universe is meant for conscious minds to inhabit and observe it. There are two variants to this idea: the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle posits that we are only able to observe our universe because of the presets producing its formation. If the big bang never happened, or the earth was too far away from the sun, our civilization would never have arisen. Thus it is easy to say ‘of course the universe was made for us’, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here to make that observation. A million other universes with different laws of physics or other presets might exist, but we’d never know because we are unable to observe them.

The strong variant of this argument goes similarly. It states that the scale of time and place in the universe is such that life must arise within it somewhere. Given how many billions of years and how large it is, there is a strong probability that intelligent life will come about and begin asking questions. However, this is a circular argument, suggesting that the proof in the pudding is that since we can question, the universe exists for it to be so questioned. Once again we are visited by the idea of a simulation.

IYou can consider further what the anthropic principles might mean for our position in the grand scheme of things. At this point we might speculate that if simulations are powerful and advanced enough, we could have sims running simulations and circles within circles. I don’t want to linger on who or what would do this; that takes the frame of this discussion from the strange into solipsism and mental illness. But if we are to entertain the philosophical argument for simulation, and note that physics may give it strength, we are met with an uncomfortable ‘reality’.

Or at least, we may be programmed to.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates.  Article written by Dr Aitch and embellished and edited by Dr Janaway (But the vast majority goes to Dr Aitch!!) Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton (2013) University of Minnesota Press
  2. The Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes (1641)
  3. Mind Children by Hans Moravec (1995) Harvard University Press
  4. You are a Simulation & Physics Can Prove It: George Smoot at TEDxSalford (watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chfoo9NBEow)
  5. https://www.simulation-argument.com
  6. Image of Rene Descartes
  7. Image of Karl Popper
  8. Image of Robin Williams
  9. Image of Halloween costume (Walter White.)