Re: Interpretations, subjectivity

From: Hans Moravec <>
Date: Sun, 11 Jul 1999 23:03:06 -0400

Steve Price, MD:

>>This makes our own self-awareness a circular object: its causes
>>only exist when we already admit to its existence.
>No. Logically, for any A, the cause of A must PRECEDE A's existence.

The late Gerry O'Neill (Princeton physicist who invented colliding
beams and space habitats) once noted that if you encounter an alien
who insists on an assertion in this spirit (eg. every logical system
must begin with a solid foundation of axioms) you can assume they
probably live on a planet, where structures must be built bottom up.
Those who live in space, say in rotating habitats, will be more
open to the idea that logical constructs can exist without support,
or particular starting points, merely holding themselves together
by internal logical consistency. The latter is the only way I've been
able to make sense of consciousness: it is an abstract attributed
property that exists in its own (abstract, attributed) eyes.
[It probably evolved in a social context as a way of seeing
others, the better to interact with them, and was at some point
applied to the observer itself.]

> But a human's self-awareness is generated by a
> physical system, a brain, which is a macroscopic object inhabiting a
> quasi-classical physical domain

I don't think so. Consciousness is just one way of interpreting
the functioning of a brain: it is a complex and observer-dependent
attribution like beauty, not a simple physical property like gravity.
What's tricky is that a property attributed with consciousness is
the ability to make attributions, so the consciousness can then
atribute its own consciousness to itself. So "you" (accepting
"your" existence for the sake of argument!) believe you are conscious.
But for all that, it is an arbitrary attribution, and doesn't
invalidate the position of my super-alien, who understands your
construction and function precisely, and can predict and affect
your behavior much better than I (or you!) can, and has no need to
attribute a fuzzy, made-up psychological concept like consciousness
to interact effectively with you. The alien finds plain, unadorned
physics a much more satisfactory way to interpret your functioning.

> where there is a well-defined time
> direction. So in this particular case, "precede' ALSO has a
> well-defined temporal sense.

In fact, I think our experience of time is also a subjective
attribution tied up in the way our conscious self-defines.

>>But isn't a tenet of the larger discussion that existence itself
>>a similarly circular business: universes exist because beings
>>within them perceive them. But those beings exist only if
>>you admit the existence of the universes that contain them.
>This is Wheeler's "self-excited circuit" nonsense. Universes exist

Calling it names doesn't refute it. It certainly resonates with
my thinking.

>because of physical laws that have nothing whatever to do with
>self-aware systems. Self-aware systems are particular CONSEQUENCES of
>physical law, not vice-versa.

I don't think either is true. Self-aware systems are logical
constructs involving psychological terms that can be mapped onto
any(!) physical or abstract systems, though particular observers,
because of their own perspective, will find some mappings easier
to make than others. For instance, we find it easy to map
consciousness onto our internal self-model, and the models we have
of our friends. We sometimes also map awareness onto inanimate
objects like fictional characters and teddy bears. The latter may
provide so little input to our "attributer" that many different
attributions are equally easy (is your teddy bear happy, or is it
angry?). This doesn't make the attributions invalid, just less useful
in discussions with others, who may choose to attribute differently.

>One great virtue of Everett's original
>relative state formulation was that it was able to assert this in a very
>clean way and give an explicit understanding of why "measurements" on
>quantum systems show the particular patterns they do to physical
>recording devices necessarily embedded within the universal wave

Everett only showed that it was consistent to model a measurement
without collapse by expressing it as the superposition of
a number of correlated observer and system states, each representing
a different measurement outcome. I'm for that 100%: gets rid of
ill-defined collapse, and gains you many-worlds. But he didn't
touch the question of why the decomposition should be into the
particular semi-classical alternatives we experience. After all,
the wave function just goes on happily evolving in toto. Who
needs any kind of decomposition? Well, I think our self-defining
consciousness abstractly maps itself onto the undifferentiated
wave function, carving out little volumes in the Hilbert space
that we see as semi-classical reality. But the only skin
around those little volumes is in our own way of looking at
it! I don't know how this works in detail: Hartle and Gell-Mann
have been struggling to an answer: how our kind of observation
"decoheres" parts of the wave function in apparently uncorrelated
consistent alternatives.

>Your claims would (a) effectively return us to Bohr's
>Copenhagen nuttiness and

I don't think so.

>(b) imply some type of primacy of consciousness
>metaphysics. How, for example, would you reconcile the origin of our
>local, observable universe some 13 billion years ago with the fact that
>consciousness did not evolve until a much later time?

Probably. I am pretty partial to the idea that the universe we
percieve, in all its great temporal and spatial extent, is probably
the simplest way for our personal subjective experience to come into
being. The simplicity isn't immediately obvious, but is implied by
the "unreasonable efficacy of mathematics in explaining reality" and
by the probable existence of a simple TOE. We find ourselves in this
universe (as opposed to someplace completely different) because
it's the simplest, and thus most probable, explanation for us.
(To answer your last question, sometimes the shortest program
to generate a particular string needs to run a very long time and
generate a lot of intermediate stuff.)

Whether you call this primacy of consciousness is arbitrary. The
chain of cuase is not a pyramid, it is a circle. You can stand on
one part of a circle and say all the rest of the circle follows
from this point. But you can also stand elswhere on it and say
the same thing!
We physical scientist types tend to think in terms of how we evolved
under the physical laws. But that doesn't invalidate the position
that these particular physical laws exist because they're necessary
to produce us.
(Or more precisely, to produce each of us individually. Another
consequence of this whole way of thinking is that we each experience
somewhat different realities. For instance, I might find myself in
a situation where you no longer existed, but I did. But I will never
find myself in a situation where you exist but I don't! For you the
situation is reversed. The radically different probabilities we
experience for these ultimate outcomes must affect the probabilities
of contingent events, with the simplest overall situation for each
of us individually having the highest probability of being observed.)

>From what I've seen in the last few days, most of the folks on this
list have positions closer to mine than to yours. In the larger
scientific world, your position is orthodoxy. I love this list!
Received on Sun Jul 11 1999 - 20:05:30 PDT

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