In the 1984 book Reasons and Persons, philosopher Derek Parfit asks the reader to consider the following scenario: You step into a teleportation machine that scans your complete atomic structure, annihilates you, and then relays that atomic information to Mars at the speed of light. There, a similar machine recreates your exact atomic structure and composition using locally available resources. Have you just traveled, Parfit asks, or have you committed suicide?
Topics discussed in this episode include:
- Identity from epistemic, ontological, and phenomenological perspectives
- Identity formation in biological evolution
- Open, closed, and empty individualism
- The moral relevance of views on identity
- Identity in the world today and on the path to superintelligence and beyond
0:00 – Intro
6:33 – What is identity?
9:52 – Ontological aspects of identity
12:50 – Epistemological and phenomenological aspects of identity
18:21 – Biological evolution of identity
26:23 – Functionality or arbitrariness of identity / whether or not there are right or wrong answers
31:23 – Moral relevance of identity
34:20 – Religion as codifying views on identity
37:50 – Different views on identity
53:16 – The hard problem and the binding problem
56:52 – The problem of causal efficacy, and the palette problem
1:00:12 – Navigating views of identity towards truth
1:08:34 – The relationship between identity and the self model
1:10:43 – The ethical implications of different views on identity
1:21:11 – The consequences of different views on identity on preference weighting
1:26:34 – Identity and AI alignment
1:37:50 – Nationalism and AI alignment
1:42:09 – Cryonics, species divergence, immortality, uploads, and merging.
1:50:28 – Future scenarios from Life 3.0
1:58:35 – The role of identity in the AI itself
We hope that you will continue to join in the conversations by following us or subscribing to our podcasts on Youtube, Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, or your preferred podcast site/application. You can find all the AI Alignment Podcasts here.
The transcript has been edited for style and clarity
Lucas Perry: Welcome to the AI Alignment Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today we have an episode with Andres Gomez Emillson and David Pearce on identity. This episode is about identity from the ontological, epistemological and phenomenological perspectives. In less jargony language, we discuss identity from the fundamental perspective of what actually exists, of how identity arises given functional world models and self models in biological organisms, and of the subjective or qualitative experience of self or identity as a feature of consciousness. Given these angles on identity, we discuss what identity is, the formation of identity in biological life via evolution, why identity is important to explore and it’s ethical implications and implications for game theory, and we directly discuss its relevance to the AI alignment problem and the project of creating beneficial AI.
I think the question of “How is this relevant to AI Alignment?” is useful to explore here in the intro. The AI Alignment problem can be construed in the technical limited sense of the question of “how to program AI systems to understand and be aligned with human values, preferences, goals, ethics, and objectives.” In a limited sense this is strictly a technical problem that supervenes upon research in machine learning, AI, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, etc. I like to approach the problem of aligning AI systems from a broader and more generalist perspective. In the way that I think about the problem, a broader view of AI alignment takes into account the problems of AI governance, philosophy, AI ethics, and reflects deeply on the context in which the technical side of the problem will be taking place, the motivations of humanity and the human beings engaged in the AI alignment process, the ingredients required for success, and other civilization level questions on our way hopefully to beneficial superintelligence.
It is from both of these perspectives that I feel exploring the question of identity is important. AI researchers have their own identities and those identities factor into their lived experience of the world, their motivations, and their ethics. In fact, the same is of course true of policy makers and anyone in positions of power to influence the alignment process, so being aware of commonly held identity models and views is important for understanding their consequences and functions in the world. From a macroscopic perspective, identity has evolved over the past 4.5 billion years on earth and surely will continue to do so in AI systems themselves and in the humans which hope to wield that power. Some humans may wish to merge, other to pass away or simply die, and others to be upgraded or uploaded in some way. Questions of identity are also crucial to this process of relating to one another and to AI systems in a rapidly evolving world where what it means to be human is quickly changing, where copies of digital minds or AIs can be made trivially, and the boundary between what we conventionally call the self and world begins to dissolve and break down in new ways, demanding new understandings of ourselves and identity in particular. I also want to highlight an important thought from the podcast that any actions we wish to take with regards to improving or changing understandings or lived experience of identity must be Sociologically relevant, or such interventions simply risk being irrelevant. This means understanding what is reasonable for human beings to be able to update their minds with and accept over certain periods of time and also the game theoretic implications of certain views of identity and their functional usefulness. This conversation is thus an attempt to broaden the conversation on these issues outside of what is normally discussed and to flag this area as something worthy of consideration.
For those not familiar with David Pearce or Andres Gomez Emilsson. David is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, rebranded humanity plus, and is a prominent figure within the transhumanism movement in general. You might know him from his work on the Hedonistic Imperative, a book which explores our moral obligation to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life through technological intervention. Andrés is a consciousness researcher at the Qualia Research Institute and is also the Co-founder and President of the Stanford Transhumanist Association. He has a Master’s in Computational Psychology from Stanford.
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And with that, here is my conversation with Andres Gomez Emilsson and David Pearce
I just want to start off with some quotes here that I think would be useful. The last podcast that we had was with Yuval Noah Harari and Max Tegmark. One of the points that Yuval really emphasized was the importance of self understanding questions like, who am I? What am I in the age of technology? Yuval all said “Get to know yourself better. It’s maybe the most important thing in life. We haven’t really progressed much in the last thousands of years, and the reason is that yes, we keep getting this advice, but we don’t really want to do it,” he goes on to say that, “especially as technology will give us all, at least some of us more and more power, the temptations of naive utopias are going to be more and more irresistible, and I think the really most powerful check on these naive utopias is really getting to know yourself better.”
In search of getting to know ourselves better, I want to explore this question of identity with both of you. To start off, what is identity?
David Pearce: One problem is that we have more than one conception of identity. There is the straightforward, logical sense that philosophers call the indiscernibility of identicals, namely that if A equals B, then anything true of A is true of B. In one sense, that’s trivially true, but when it comes to something like personal identity, it just doesn’t hold water at all. You are a different person from your namesake who went to bed last night – and it’s very easy carelessly to shift between these two different senses of identity.
Or one might speak of the United States. In what sense is the United States the same nation in 2020 as it was in 1975? It’s interest-relative.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah and to go a little bit deeper on that, I would make the distinction as David made it between ontological identity, what fundamentally is actually going on in the physical world? In instantiated reality? Then there’s conventional identity definitely, the idea of continuing to exist from one moment to another as a human and also countries and so on.
Then there’s also phenomenological identity, which is our intuitive common sense view of: What are we and basically, what are the conditions that will allow us to continue to exist? We can go into more detail but yet, the phenomenological notion of identity is an incredible can of worms because there’s so many different ways of experiencing identity and all of them have their own interesting idiosyncrasies. Most people tend to confuse the two. They tend to confuse ontological and phenomenological identity. Just as a simple example that I’m sure we will revisit in the future, when a person has, let’s say an ego dissolution or a mystical experience and they feel that they merged with the rest of the cosmos, and they come out and say, “Oh, we’re all one consciousness.” That tends to be interpreted as some kind of grasp of an ontological reality. Whereas we could argue in a sense that that was just the shift in phenomenological identity, that your sense of self got transformed, not necessarily that you’re actually directly merging with the cosmos in a literal sense. Although, of course it might be very indicative of how conventional our sense of identity is if it can be modified so drastically in other states of consciousness.
Lucas Perry: Right, and let’s just start with the ontological sense. How does one understand or think about identity from the ontological side?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: In order to reason about this, you need a shared frame of reference for what actually exists, and a number of things including the nature of time and space, and memory because in the common sense view of time called presentism, where basically there’s just the present moment, the past is a convenient construction and the future is a fiction useful in practical sense, but they don’t literally exist in that sense. This notion that A equals B in the sense of, Hey, you could modify what happens to A and that will automatically also modify what happens to B. It kind of makes sense and you can perhaps think of identity is moving over time along with everything else.
On the other hand, if you have an eternalist point of view where basically you interpret the whole of space time as just basically there, on their own coordinates in the multiverse, that kind of provides a different notion of ontological identity because it’s in a sense, a moment of experience is its own separate piece of reality.
In addition, you also need to consider the question of connectivity: in what way different parts of reality are connected to each other? In a conventional sense, as you go from one second to the next, you’ve continued to be connected to yourself in an unbroken stream of consciousness and this has actually led some philosophers to hypothesize that the proper unit of identity is from the moment your wake up to the moment in which you go to sleep because that’s an unbroken chain/stream of consciousness.
From a scientific and philosophically rigorous point of view, it’s actually difficult to make the case that our stream of consciousness is truly unbroken. Definitely if you have an eternalist point of view on experience and on the nature of time, what you will instead see is from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, there’s actually been an extraordinarily large amount of snapshots of discrete and moments of experience. In that sense, each of those individual moments of experiences would be its own ontologically separate individual.
Now one of the things that becomes kind of complicated with a kind of an eternalist account of time and identity is that you cannot actually change it. There’s nothing you can actually do to A, so that reasoning of if you do anything to A an A equals B, then the same will happen to B, doesn’t even actually apply in here because everything is already there. You cannot actually modify A any more than you can modify the number five.
David Pearce: Yes, it’s a rather depressing perspective in many ways, the eternalist view. If one internalizes it too much, it can lead to a sense of fatalism and despair. A lot of the time it’s probably actually best to think of the future as open.
Lucas Perry: This helps to clarify some of the ontological part of identity. Now, you mentioned this phenomenological aspect and I want to say also the epistemological aspect of identity. Could you unpack those two? And maybe clarify this distinction for me if you wouldn’t parse it this way? I guess I would say that the epistemological one is the models that human beings have about the world and about ourselves. It includes how the world is populated with a lot of different objects that have identity like humans and planets and galaxies. Then we have our self model, which is the model of our body and our space in social groups and who we think we are.
Then there’s the phenomenological identity, which is that subjective qualitative experience of self or the ego in relation to experience. Or where there’s an identification with attention and experience. Could you unpack these two later senses?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah, for sure. I mean in a sense you could have like an implicit self model that doesn’t actually become part of your consciousness or it’s not necessarily something that you’re explicitly rendering. This goes on all the time. You’ve definitely, I’m sure, had the experience of riding a bicycle and after a little while you can almost do it without thinking. Of course, you’re engaging with the process in a very embodied fashion, but you’re not cognizing very much about it. Definitely you’re not representing, let’s say your body state, or you’re representing exactly what is going on in a cognitive way. It’s all kind of implicit in the way in which you feel. I would say that paints a little bit of a distinction between a self model which is ultimately functional. It has to do with, are you processing the information that you’re required to solve the task that involves modeling what you are in your environment and distinguishing it from the felt sense of, are you a person? What are you? How are you located and so on.
The first one is the one that most of robotics and machine learning, that have like an embodied component, are really trying to get at. You just need the appropriate information processing in order to solve the task. They’re not very concerned about, does this feel like anything? Or does it feel like a particular entity or a self to be that particular algorithm?
Whereas, we’re talking about the phenomenological sense of identity. That’s very explicitly about how it feels like and there’s all kinds of ways in which a healthy so to speak, sense of identity, can be broken down in all sorts of interesting ways. There’s many failure modes, we can put it that way.
One might argue, I mean I suspect for example, David Pearce might say this, which is that, our self models or our implicit sense of self, because of the way in which it was brought up through Darwinian selection pressures, is already extremely ill in some sense at least, from the point of view of it, it actually telling us something true and actually making us do something ethical. It has all sorts of problems, but it is definitely functional. You can anticipate being a person tomorrow and plan accordingly. You leave messages to yourself by encoding them in memory and yeah, this is a convenient sense of conventional identity.
It’s very natural for most people’s experiences. I can briefly mention a couple of ways in which it can break down. One of them is depersonalization. It’s a particular psychological disorder where one stops feeling like a person, and it might have something to do with basically, not being able to synchronize with your bodily feelings in such a way that you don’t actually feel embodied. You may feel this incarnate entity or just a witness experiencing a human experience, but not actually being that person.
Then you also have things such as empathogen induced sense of shared identity with others. If you’d take MDMA, you may feel that all of humanity is deeply connected, or we’re all part of the same essence of humanity in a very positive sense of identity, but perhaps not in an evolutionary adaptive sense. Finally, is people with a multiple personality disorder, where in a sense they have a very unstable sense of who they are and sometimes it can be so extreme that there’s epistemological blockages from one sense of self to another.
David Pearce: As neuroscientist Donald Hoffman likes to say, fitness trumps truth. Each of us runs a world-simulation. But it’s not an impartial, accurate, faithful world-simulation. I am at the center of a world-simulation, my egocentric world, the hub of reality that follows me around. And of course there are billions upon billions of other analogous examples too. This is genetically extremely fitness-enhancing. But it’s systematically misleading. In that sense, I think Darwinian life is malware.
Lucas Perry: Wrapping up here on these different aspects of identity, I just want to make sure that I have all of them here. Would you say that those are all of the aspects?
David Pearce: One can add the distinction between type- and token- identity. In principle, it’s possible to create from scratch a molecular duplicate of you. Is that person you? It’s type-identical, but it’s not token-identical.
Lucas Perry: Oh, right. I think I’ve heard this used in some other places as numerical distinction versus qualitative distinction. Is that right?
David Pearce: Yeah, that’s the same distinction.
Lucas Perry: Unpacking here more about what identity is. Let’s talk about it purely as something that the world has produced. What can we say about the evolution of identity in biological life? What is the efficacy of certain identity models in Darwinian evolution?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I would say that self models most likely have existed, potentially since pretty early on in the evolutionary timeline. You may argue that in some sense even bacteria has some kind of self model. But again, a self model is really just functional. The bacteria does need to know, at least implicitly, it’s size in order to be able to navigate it’s environment, follow chemical gradients, and so on, not step on itself. That’s not the same, again, as a phenomenal sense of identity, and that one I would strongly suspect came much later. Perhaps with the advent of the first primitive nervous systems. That would be only if actually running that phenomenal model is giving you some kind of fitness advantage.
One of the things that you will encounter with David and I is that we think that phenomenally bound experiences have a lot of computational properties and in a sense, the reason why we’re conscious has to do with the fact that unified moments of experience are doing computationally useful legwork. It comes when you merge implicit self models in just the functional sense together with the computational benefits of actually running a conscious system that, perhaps for the first time in history, you will actually have a phenomenal self model.
I would suspect probably in the Cambrian explosion this was already going on to some extent. All of these interesting evolutionary oddities that happen in the Cambrian explosion probably had some kind of rudimentary sense of self. I would be skeptical that is going on.
For example, in plants. One of the key reasons is that running a real time world simulation in a conscious framework is very calorically expensive.
David Pearce: Yes, it’s a scandal. What, evolutionarily speaking, is consciousness “for”? What could a hypothetical p-zombie not do? The perspective that Andrés and I are articulating is that essentially what makes biological minds special is phenomenal binding – the capacity to run real-time, phenomenally-bound world-simulations, i.e. not just be 86 billion discrete, membrane-bound pixels of experience. Somehow, we each generate an entire cross-modally matched, real-time world-simulation, made up of individual perceptual objects, somehow bound into a unitary self. The unity of perception is extraordinarily computationally powerful and adaptive. Simply saying that it’s extremely fitness-enhancing doesn’t explain it, because something like telepathy would be extremely fitness-enhancing too, but it’s physically impossible.
Yes, how biological minds manage to run phenomenally-bound world-simulations is unknown: they would seem to be classically impossible. One way to appreciate just how advantageous is (non-psychotic) phenomenal binding is to look at syndromes where binding even partially breaks down: simultanagnosia, where one can see only one object at once, or motion blindness (akinetopsia), where you can’t actually see moving objects, or florid schizophrenia. Just imagine those syndromes combined. Why aren’t we just micro-experiential zombies?
Lucas Perry: Do we have any interesting points here to look at in the evolutionary tree for where identity is substantially different from ape consciousness? If we look back at human evolution, it seems that it’s given the apes and particularly our species a pretty strong sense of self, and that gives rise to much of our ape socialization and politics. I’m wondering if there was anything else like maybe insects or other creatures that have gone in a different direction? Also if you guys might be able to just speak a little bit on the formation of ape identity.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Definitely I think like the perspective of the selfish gene, it’s pretty illuminating here. Nominally, our sense of identity is the sense of one person, one mind. In practice however, if you make sense of identity as well in terms of that which you want to defend, or that of which you consider worth preserving, you will see that people’s sense of identity also extends to their family members and of course, with the neocortex and the ability to create more complex associations. Then you have crazy things like sense of identity being based on race or country of origin or other constructs like that.are building on top of imports from the sense of, hey, the people who are familiar to you feel more like you.
It’s genetically adaptive to have that and from the point of view of the selfish gene, genes that could recognize themselves in others and favor the existence of others that also share the same genes, are more likely to reproduce. That’s called the inclusive fitness in biology, you’re not just trying to survive yourself or make copies of yourself, you’re also trying to help those that are very similar to you do the same. Almost certainly, it’s a huge aspect of how we perceive the world. Just anecdotally from a number of trip reports, there’s this interesting thread of how some chemicals like MDMA and 2CB, for those who don’t know, it’s these empathogenic psychedelics, that people get the strange sense that people they’ve never met before in their life are as close to them as a cousin, or maybe a half brother, or half sister. It’s a very comfortable and quite beautiful feeling. You could imagine that nature was very selective on who do you give that feeling to in order to maximize inclusive fitness.
All of this builds up to the overall prediction I would make that, the sense of identity of ants and other extremely social insects might be very different. The reason being that they are genetically incentivized to basically treat each other as themselves. Most ants themselves don’t produce any offspring. They are genetically sisters and all of their genetic incentives are into basically helping the queen pass on the genes into other colonies. In that sense, I would imagine an ant probably sees other ants of the same colony pretty much as themselves.
David Pearce: Yes. There was an extraordinary finding a few years ago: members of one species of social ant actually passed the mirror test – which has traditionally been regarded as the gold standard for the concept of a self. It was shocking enough, to many people, when a small fish was shown to be capable of mirror self-recognition. If some ants too can pass the mirror test, it suggests some form of meta-cognition, self-recognition, that is extraordinarily ancient.
What is it that distinguishes humans from nonhuman animals? I suspect the distinction relates to something that is still physically unexplained: how is it that a massively parallel brain gives rise to serial, logico-linguistic thought? It’s unexplained, but I would say this serial stream is what distinguishes us, most of all – not possession of a self-concept.
Lucas Perry: Is there such a thing as a right answer to questions of identity? Or is it fundamentally just something that’s functional? Or is it ultimately arbitrary?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I think there is the right answer. From a functional perspective, there’s just so many different ways of thinking about it. As I was describing perhaps with ants and humans, their sense of identity is probably pretty different. But, they both are useful for passing on the genes. In that sense they’re all equally valid. Imagine in the future is some kind of a swarm mind that also has its own distinct functionally adaptive sense of identity, and I mean in that sense that it ground truth to what it should be from the point of view of functionality. It really just depends on what is the replication unit.
Ontologically though, I think there’s a case to be made that either or empty individualism are true. Maybe it would be good to define those terms first.
Lucas Perry: Before we do that. Your answer then is just that, yes, you suspect that also ontologically in terms of fundamental physics, there are answers to questions of identity? Identity itself isn’t a confused category?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a leaky reification as they say.
Lucas Perry: From the phenomenological sense, is the self an illusion or not? Is the self a valid category? Is your view also on identity that there is a right answer there?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: From the phenomenological point of view? No, I would consider it a parameter, mostly. Just something that you can vary, and there’s trade offs or different experiences of identity.
Lucas Perry: Okay. How about you David?
David Pearce: I think ultimately, yes, there are right answers. In practice, life would be unlivable if we didn’t maintain these fictions. These fictions are (in one sense) deeply immoral. We punish someone for a deed that their namesake performed, let’s say 10, 15, 20 years ago. America recently executed a murderer for a crime that was done 20 years ago. Now quite aside from issues of freedom and responsibility and so on, this is just scapegoating.
Lucas Perry: David, do you feel that in the ontological sense there are right or wrong answers to questions of identity? And in the phenomenological sense? And in the functional sense?
David Pearce: Yes.
Lucas Perry: Okay, so then I guess you disagree with Andres about the phenomenological sense?
David Pearce: I’m not sure, Andrés and I agree about most things. Are we disagreeing Andrés?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I’m not sure. I mean, what I said about the phenomenal aspect of identity was that I think of it as a parameter of our world simulation. In that sense, there’s no true phenomenological sense of identity. They’re all useful for different things. The reason I would say this too is, you can assume that something like each snapshot of experience, is its own separate identity. I’m not even sure you can accurately represent that in a moment of experience itself. This is itself a huge can of worms that opens up the problem of referents. Can we even actually refer to something from our own point of view? My intuition here is that, whatever sense of identity you have at a phenomenal level, I think of it as a parameter of the world simulation and I don’t think it can be an accurate representation of something true. It’s just going to be a feeling, so to speak.
David Pearce: I could endorse that. We fundamentally misperceive each other. The Hogan sisters, conjoined craniopagus twins, know something that the rest of us don’t. The Hogan sisters share a thalamic bridge, which enables them partially, to a limited extent, to “mind-meld”. The rest of us see other people essentially as objects that have feelings. When one thinks of one’s own ignorance, perhaps one laments one’s failures as a mathematician or a physicist or whatever; but an absolutely fundamental form of ignorance that we take for granted is we (mis)conceive other people and nonhuman animals as essentially objects with feelings, whereas individually, we ourselves have first-person experience. Whether it’s going to be possible to overcome this limitation in the future I don’t know. It’s going to be immensely technically challenging – building something like reversible thalamic bridges. A lot depends on one’s theory of phenomenal binding. But let’s imagine a future civilization in which partial “mind-melding” is routine. I think it will lead to a revolution not just in morality, but in decision-theoretic rationality too – one will take into account the desires, the interests, and the preferences of what will seem like different aspects of oneself.
Lucas Perry: Why does identity matter morally? I think you guys have made a good case about how it’s important functionally, historically in terms of biological evolution, and then in terms of like society and culture identity is clearly extremely important for human social relations, for navigating social hierarchies and understanding one’s position of having a concept of self and identity over time, but why does it matter morally here?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: One interesting story where you can think of a lot of social movements, in a sense, a lot of ideologies that have existed in human history, as attempts to hack people’s sense of identities or make use of them for the purpose of the reproduction of the ideology or the social movement itself.
To a large extent, a lot of the things that you see in a therapy have a lot to do with expanding your sense of identity to include your future self as well, which is something that a lot of people struggle with when it comes to impulsive decisions or your rationality. There’s these interesting point of view of how a two year old or a three year old, hasn’t yet internalized the fact that they will wake up tomorrow and that the consequences of what they did today will linger on in the following days. This is kind of a revelation when a kid finally internalizes the fact that, Oh my gosh, I will continue to exist for the rest of my life. There’s going to be a point where I’m going to be 40 years old and also there’s going to be a time where I’m 80 years old and all of those are real, and I should plan ahead for it.
Ultimately, I do think that advocating for a very inclusive sense of identity, where the locus of identity is consciousness itself. I do think that might be a tremendous moral and ethical implications.
David Pearce: We want an inclusive sense of “us” that embraces all sentient beings. This is extremely ambitious, but I think that should be the long-term goal.
Lucas Perry: Right, there’s a spectrum here and where you fall on the spectrum will lead to different functions and behaviors, solipsism or extreme egoism on one end, pure selflessness or ego death or pure altruism on the other end. Perhaps there are other degrees and axes on which you can move, but the point is it leads to radically different identifications and relations with other sentient beings and with other instantiations of consciousness.
David Pearce: Would our conception of death be different if it was a convention to give someone a different name when they woke up each morning? Because after all, waking up is akin to reincarnation. Why is it that when one is drifting asleep each night, one isn’t afraid of death? It’s because (in some sense) one believes one is going to be reincarnated in the morning.
Lucas Perry: I like that. Okay, I want to return to this question after we hit on the different views of identity to really unpack the different ethical implications more. I wanted to sneak that in here for a bit of context. Pivoting back to this sort of historical and contextual analysis of identity. We talked about biological evolution as like instantiating these things. How do you guys view religion as codifying an egoist view on identity? Religion codifies the idea of the eternal soul and the soul, I think, maps very strongly onto the phenomenological self. It makes that the thing that is immutable or undying or which transcends this realm?
I’m talking obviously specifically here about Abrahamic religions, but then also in Buddhism there is, the self is an illusion, or what David referred to as empty individualism, which we’ll get into, where it says that identification with the phenomenological self is fundamentally a misapprehension of reality and like a confusion and that that leads to attachment and suffering and fear of death. Do you guys have comments here about religion as codifying views on identity?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I think it’s definitely really interesting that there are different views of identity and religion. How I grew up, I always assumed religion was about souls and getting into heaven. As it turns out, I just needed to know about Eastern religions and cults. That also happened to sometimes have like different views of personal identity. That was definitely a revelation to me. I would actually say that I started questioning the sense of a common sense of personal identity before I learned about Eastern religions and I was really pretty surprised and very happy when I found out that, let’s say Hinduism actually, it has a kind of universal consciousness take on identity, a socially sanctioned way of looking at the world that has a very expansive sense of identity. Buddhism is also pretty interesting because as far as I understand it, they consider actually pretty much any view of identity to be a cause for suffering fundamentally has to do with a sense of craving either for existence or craving for non-existence, which they also consider a problem. A Buddhist would generally say that even something like universal consciousness, believing that we’re all fundamentally Krishna incarnating in many different ways, itself will also be a source of suffering to some extent because you may crave further existence, which may not be very good from their point of view. It makes me optimistic that there’s other types of religions with other views of identity.
David Pearce: Yes. Here is one of my earliest memories. My mother belonged to The Order of the Cross – a very obscure, small, vaguely Christian denomination, non-sexist, who worship God the Father-Mother. And I recall being told, aged five, that I could be born again. It might be as a little boy, but it might be as a little girl – because gender didn’t matter. And I was absolutely appalled at this – at the age of five or so – because in some sense girls were, and I couldn’t actually express this, defective.
And religious conceptions of identity vary immensely. One thinks of something like Original Sin in Christianity. I could now make a lot of superficial comments about religion. But one would need to explore in detail the different religious traditions and their different conceptions of identity.
Lucas Perry: What are the different views on identity? If you can say anything, why don’t you hit on the ontological sense and the phenomenological sense? Or if we just want to stick to the phenomenological sense then we can.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I mean, are you talking about an open, empty, closed?
Lucas Perry: Yeah. So that would be the phenomenological sense, yeah.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: No, actually I would claim those are attempts at getting at the ontological sense.
Lucas Perry: Okay.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: If you do truly have a soul ontology, something that implicitly a very large percentage of the human population have, that would be, yeah, in this view called a closed individualist perspective. Common sense, you start existing when you’re born, you stop existing when you die, you’re just a stream of consciousness. Even perhaps more strongly, you’re a soul that has experiences, but experiences maybe are not fundamental to what you are.
Then there is the more Buddhist and definitely more generally scientifically-minded view, which is empty individualism, which is that you only exist as a moment of experience, and from one moment to the next that you are a completely different entity. And then, finally, there is open individualism, which is like Hinduism claiming that we are all one consciousness fundamentally.
There is an ontological way of thinking of these notions of identity. It’s possible that a lot of people think of them just phenomenologically, or they may just think there’s no further fact beyond the phenomenal. In which case something like that closed individualism, for most people most of the time, is self-evidently true because you are moving in time and you can notice that you continue to be yourself from one moment to the next. Then, of course, what would it feel like if you weren’t the same person from one moment to the next? Well, each of those moments might completely be under the illusion that it is a continuous self.
For most things in philosophy and science, if you want to use something as evidence, it has to agree with one theory and disagree with another one. And the sense of continuity from one second to the next seems to be compatible with all three views. So it’s not itself much evidence either way.
States of depersonalization are probably much more akin to empty individualism from a phenomenological point of view, and then you have ego death and definitely some experiences of the psychedelic variety, especially high doses of psychedelics tend to produce very strong feelings of open individualism. That often comes in the form of noticing that your conventional sense of self is very buggy and doesn’t seem to track anything real, but then realizing that you can identify with awareness itself. And if you do that, then in some sense automatically, you realize that you are every other experience out there, since the fundamental ingredient of a witness or awareness is shared with every conscious experience.
Lucas Perry: These views on identity are confusing to me because agents haven’t existed for most of the universe and I don’t know why we need to privilege agents in our ideas of identity. They seem to me just emergent patterns of a big, ancient, old, physical universe process that’s unfolding. It’s confusing to me that just because there are complex self- and world-modeling patterns in the world, that we need to privilege them with some kind of shared identity across themselves or across the world. Do you see what I mean here?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m not agent-centric. And I mean, in a sense also, all of these other exotic feelings of identity often also come with states of low agency. You actually don’t feel that you have much of a choice in what you could do. I mean, definitely depersonalization, for example, often comes with a sense of inability to make choices, that actually it’s not you who’s making the choice, they’re just unfolding and happening. Of course, in some meditative traditions that’s considered a path to awakening, but in practice for a lot of people, that’s a very unpleasant type of experience.
It sounds like it might be privileging agents; I would say that’s not the case. If you zoom out and you see the bigger worldview, it includes basically this concept, David calls it non-materialist physicalist idealism, where the laws of physics describe the behavior of the universe, but that which is behaving according to the laws of physics is qualia, is consciousness itself.
I take very seriously the idea that a given molecule or a particular atom contains moments of experience, it’s just perhaps very fleeting and very dim or are just not very relevant in many ways, but I do think it’s there. And sense of identity, maybe not in a phenomenal sense, I don’t think an atom actually feels like an agent over time, but continuity of its experience and the boundaries of its experience would have strong bearings on ontological sense of identity.
There’s a huge, obviously, a huge jump between talking about the identity of atoms and then talking about the identity of a moment of experience, which presumably is an emergent effect of 100 billion neurons, themselves made of so many different atoms. Crazy as it may be, it is both David Pearce’s view and my view that actually each moment of experience does stand as an ontological unit. It’s just the ontological unit of a certain kind that usually we don’t see in physics, but it is both physical and ontologically closed.
Lucas Perry: Maybe you could unpack this. You know mereological nihilism, maybe I privilege this view where I just am trying to be as simple as possible and not build up too many concepts on top of each other.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Mereological nihilism basically says that there are no entities that have parts. Everything is part-less. All that exists in reality is individual monads, so to speak, things that are fundamentally self-existing. For that, if you have let’s say monad A and monad B, just put together side by side, that doesn’t entail that now there is a monad AB that mixes the two.
Lucas Perry: Or if you put a bunch of fundamental quarks together that it makes something called an atom. You would just say that it’s quarks arranged atom-wise. There’s the structure and the information there, but it’s just made of the monads.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Right. And the atom is a wonderful case, basically the same as a molecule, where I would say mereological nihilism with fundamental particles as just the only truly existing beings does seem to be false when you look at how, for example, molecules behave. The building block account of how chemical bonds happen, which is with these Lewis diagrams of how it can have a single bond or double bond and you have the octet rule, and you’re trying to build these chains of atoms strung together. And all that matters for those diagrams is what each atom is locally connected to.
However, if you just use these in order to predict what molecules are possible and how they behave and their properties, you will see that there’s a lot of artifacts that are empirically disproven. And over the years, chemistry has become more and more sophisticated where eventually, it’s come to the realization that you need to take into account the entire molecule at once in order to understand what its “dynamically stable” configuration, which involves all of the electrons and all of the nuclei simultaneously interlocking into a particular pattern that self replicates.
Lucas Perry: And it has new properties over and above the parts.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Exactly.
Lucas Perry: That doesn’t make any sense to me or my intuitions, so maybe my intuitions are just really wrong. Where does the new property or causality come from? Because it essentially has causal efficacy over and above the parts.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah, it’s tremendously confusing. I mean, I’m currently writing an article about basically how this sense of topological segmentation can, in a sense, account both for this effect of what we might call weak downward causation, which is like, you get a molecule and now the molecule will have effects in the world; that you need to take into account all of the electrons and all of the nuclei simultaneously as a unit in order to actually know what the effect is going to be in the world. You cannot just take each of the components separately, but that’s something that we could call weak downward causation. It’s not that fundamentally you’re introducing a new law of physics. Everything is still predicted by Schrödinger equation, it’s still governing the behavior of the entire molecule. It’s just that the appropriate unit of analysis is not the electron, but it would be the entire molecule.
Now, if you pair this together with a sense of identity that comes from topology, then I think there might be a good case for why moments of experience are discrete entities. The analogy here with the topological segmentation, hopefully I’m not going to lose too many listeners here, but we can make an analogy with, for example, a balloon. That if you start out imagining that you are the surface of the balloon and then you take the balloon by two ends and you twist them in opposite directions, eventually at the middle point you get what’s called a pinch point. Basically, the balloon collapses in the center and you end up having these two smooth surfaces connected by a pinch point. Each of those twists creates a new topological segment, or in a sense is segmenting out the balloon. You could basically interpret things such as molecules as new topological segmentations of what’s fundamentally the quantum fields that is implementing them.
Usually, the segmentations may look like an electron or a proton, but if you assemble them together just right, you can get them to essentially melt with each other and become one topologically continuous unit. The nice thing about this account is that you get everything that you want. You explain, on the one hand, why identity would actually have causal implications, and it’s this weak downward causation effect, at the same time as being able to explain: how is it possible that the universe can break down into many different entities? Well, the answer is the way in which it is breaking down is through topological segmentations. You end up having these self-contained regions of the wave function that are discommunicated from the rest of it, and each of those might be a different subject of experience.
David Pearce: It’s very much an open question: the intrinsic nature of the physical. Commonly, materialism and physicalism are conflated. But the point of view that Andrés and I take seriously, non-materialist physicalism, is actually a form of idealism. Recently, philosopher Phil Goff, who used to be a skeptic-critic of non-materialist physicalism because of the binding problem, published a book defending it, “Galileo’s Error”.
Again, it’s very much an open question. We’re making some key background assumptions here. A critical background assumption is physicalism, and that quantum mechanics is complete: there is no “element of reality” that is missing from the equations (or possibly the fundamental equation) of physics. But physics itself seems to be silent on the intrinsic nature of the physical. What is the intrinsic nature of a quantum field? Intuitively, it’s a field of insentience; but this isn’t a scientific discovery, it’s a (very strong) philosophical intuition.
And if you couple this with the fact that the only part of the world to which one has direct access, i.e., one’s own conscious mind (though this is controversial), is consciousness, sentience. The non-materialist physicalist conjectures that we are typical, in one sense – inasmuch as the fields of your central nervous system aren’t ontologically different from the fields of the rest of the world. And what makes sentient beings special is the way that fields are organized into unified subjects of experience, egocentric world-simulations.
Now, I’m personally fairly confident that we are, individually, minds running egocentric world-simulations: direct realism is false. I’m not at all confident – though I explore the idea – that experience is the intrinsic nature of the physical, the “stuff” of the world. This is a tradition that goes back via Russell, ultimately, to Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer essentially turns Kant on his head.
Kant famously said that all we will ever know is phenomenology, appearances; we will never, never know the intrinsic, noumenal nature of the world. But Schopenhauer argues that essentially we do actually know one tiny piece of the noumenal essence of the world, the essence of the physical, and it’s experiential. So yes, tentatively, at any rate, Andrés and I would defend non-materialist or idealistic physicalism. The actual term “non-materialist physicalism” is due to the late Grover Maxwell.
Lucas Perry: Sorry, could you just define that real quick? I think we haven’t.
David Pearce: Physicalism is the idea that no “element of reality” is missing from the equations of physics, presumably (some relativistic generalization of) the universal Schrödinger equation.
Lucas Perry: It’s a kind of naturalism, too.
David Pearce: Oh, yes. It is naturalism. There are some forms of idealism and panpsychism that are non-naturalistic, but this view is uncompromisingly monist. Non-materialist physicalism isn’t claiming that a primitive experience is attached in some way to fundamental physical properties. The idea is that the actual intrinsic nature, the essence of the physical, is experiential.
Stephen Hawking, for instance, was a wave function monist. A doctrinaire materialist, but he famously said that we have no idea what breathed fire into the equations and makes the universe first to describe. Now, intuitively, of course one assumes that the fire in the equations, Kant’s noumenal essence of the world, is non-experiential. But if so, we have the hard problem, we have the binding problem, we have the problem of causal efficacy, a great mess of problems.
But if, and it’s obviously a huge if, the actual intrinsic nature of the physical is experiential, then we have a theory of reality that is empirically adequate, that has tremendous explanatory and predictive power. It’s mind-bogglingly implausible, at least to those of us steeped in the conceptual framework of materialism. But yes, by transposing the entire mathematical apparatus of modern physics, quantum field theory or its generalization, onto an idealist ontology, one actually has a complete account of reality that explains the technological successes of science, its predictive power, and doesn’t give rise to such insoluble mysteries as the hard problem.
Lucas Perry: I think all of this is very clarifying. There are also background metaphysical views, which people may or may not disagree upon, which are also important for identity. I also want to be careful to define some terms, in case some listeners don’t know what they mean. I think you hit on like four different things which all had to do with consciousness. The hard problem is why different kinds of computation actually… why it’s something to be that computation or like why there is consciousness correlated or associated with that experience.
Then you also said the binding problem. Is it the binding problem, why there is a unitary experience that’s, you said, modally connected earlier?
David Pearce: Yes, and if one takes the standard view from neuroscience that your brain consists of 86-billion-odd discrete, decohered, membrane-bound nerve cells, then phenomenal binding, whether local or global, ought to be impossible. So yeah, this is the binding problem, this (partial) structural mismatch. If your brain is scanned when you’re seeing a particular perceptual object, neuroscanning can apparently pick out distributed feature-processors, edge-detectors, motion-detectors, color-mediating neurons (etc). And yet there isn’t the perfect structural match that must exist if physicalism is true. And David Chalmers – because of this (partial) structural mismatch – goes on to argue that dualism must be true. Although I agree with David Chalmers that yes, phenomenal binding is classically impossible, if one takes the intrinsic nature argument seriously, then phenomenal unity is minted in.
The intrinsic nature argument, recall, is that experience, consciousness, discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Now, one of the reasons why this idea is so desperately implausible is it makes the fundamental “psychon” of consciousness ludicrously small. But there’s a neglected corollary of non-materialist physicalism, namely that if experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, then experience must be temporally incredibly fine-grained too. And if we probe your nervous system at a temporal resolution of femtoseconds or even attoseconds, what would we find? My guess is that it would be possible to recover a perfect structural match between what you are experiencing now in your phenomenal world-simulation and the underlying physics. Superpositions (“cat states”) are individual states [i.e. not classical aggregates].
Now, if the effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions and the CNS were milliseconds, they would be the obvious candidate for a perfect structural match and explain the phenomenal unity of consciousness. But physicists, not least Max Tegmark, have done the maths: decoherence means that the effective lifetime of neuronal superpositions in the CNS, assuming the unitary-only dynamics, is femtoseconds or less, which is intuitively the reductio ad absurdum of any kind of quantum mind.
But one person’s reductio ad absurdum is another person’s falsifiable prediction. I’m guessing – I’m sounding like a believer, but I’m not – I am guessing that with sufficiently sensitive molecular matter- wave interferometry, perhaps using “trained up” mini-brains, that the non-classical interference signature will disclose a perfect structural match between what you’re experiencing right now, your unified phenomenal world-simulation, and the underlying physics.
Lucas Perry: So, we hit on the hard problem and also the binding problem. There was like two other ones that you threw out there earlier that… I forget what they were?
David Pearce: Yeah, the problem of causal efficacy. How is it that you and I can discuss consciousness? How is it that the “raw feels” of consciousness have not merely the causal, but also the functional efficacy to inspire discussions of their existence?
Lucas Perry: And then what was the last one?
David Pearce: Oh, it’s been called the palette problem, P-A-L-E-T-T-E. As in the fact that there is tremendous diversity of different kinds of experience and yet the fundamental entities recognized by physics, at least on the normal tale, are extremely simple and homogeneous. What explains this extraordinarily rich palette of conscious experience? Physics exhaustively describes the structural-relational properties of the world. What physics doesn’t do is deal in the essence of the physical, its intrinsic nature.
Now, it’s an extremely plausible assumption that the world’s fundamental fields are non-experiential, devoid of any subjective properties – and this may well be the case. But if so, we have the hard problem, the binding problem, the problem of causal efficacy, the palette problem – a whole raft of problems.
Lucas Perry: Okay. So, this all serves the purpose of codifying that there’s these questions up in the air about these metaphysical views which inform identity. We got here because we were talking about mereological nihilism, and Andrés said that one view that you guys have is that you can divide or cut or partition consciousness into individual, momentary, unitary moments of experience that you claim are ontologically simple. What is your credence on this view?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Phenomenological evidence. When you experience your visual fields, you don’t only experience one point at a time. The contents of your experience are not ones and zeros; it isn’t the case that you experience one and then zero and then one again. Rather, you experience many different types of qualia varieties simultaneously: visuals experience and auditory experience and so on. All of that gets presented to you. I take that very seriously. I mean, some other researchers may fundamentally say that that’s an illusion, that there’s actually never a unified experience, but that has way many more problems than actually thinking seriously that unity of consciousness.
David Pearce: A number of distinct questions arise here. Are each of us egocentric phenomenal world-simulations? A lot of people are implicitly perceptual direct realists, even though they might disavow the label. Implicitly, they assume that they have some kind of direct access to physical properties. They associate experience with some kind of stream of thoughts and feelings behind their forehead. But if instead we are world-simulationists, then there arises the question: what is the actual fundamental nature of the world beyond your phenomenal world-simulation? Is it experiential or non-experiential? I am agnostic about that – even though I explore non-materialist physicalism.
Lucas Perry: So, I guess I’m just trying to get a better answer here on how is it that we navigate these views of identity towards truth?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: An example I thought of, of a very big contrast between what you may intuitively imagine is going on versus what’s actually happening, is if you are very afraid of snakes, for example, you look at a snake. You feel, “Oh, my gosh, it’s intruding into my world and I should get away from it,” and you have this representation of it as a very big other. Anything that is very threatening, oftentimes you represent it as “an other”.
But crazily, that’s actually just yourself to a large extent because it’s still part of your experience. Within your moment of experience, the whole phenomenal quality of looking at a snake and thinking, “That’s an other,” is entirely contained within you. In that sense, these ways of ascribing identity and continuity to the things around us or a self-other division are almost psychotic. They start out by assuming that you can segment out a piece of your experience and call it something that belongs to somebody else, even though clearly, it’s still just part of your own experience; it’s you.
Lucas Perry: But the background here is also that you’re calling your experience your own experience, which is maybe also a kind of psychopathy. Is that the word you used?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s right.
Lucas Perry: Maybe the scientific thing is, there’s just snake experience and it’s neither yours nor not yours, and there’s what we conventionally call a snake.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: That said, there are ways in which I think you can use experience to gain insight about other experiences. If you’re looking at a picture that has two blue dots, I think you can accurately say, by paying attention to one of those blue dots, the phenomenal property of my sensation of blue is also in that other part of my visual field. And this is a case where in a sense you can I think, meaningfully refer to some aspect of your experience by pointing at an other aspect of your experience. It’s still maybe in some sense kind of crazy, but it’s still closer to truth than many other things that we think of or imagine.
Honest and true statements about the nature of other people’s experiences, I think are very much achievable. Bridging the reference gap, I think it might be possible to overcome and you can probably aim for a true sense of identity, harmonizing the phenomenal and the ontological sense of identity.
Lucas Perry: I mean, I think that part of the motivation, for example in Buddhism, is that you need to always be understanding yourself in reality as it is or else you will suffer, and that it is through understanding how things are that you’ll stop suffering. I like this point that you said about unifying the phenomenal identity and phenomenal self with what is ontologically true, but that also seems not intrinsically necessary because there’s also this other point here where you can maybe function or have the epistemology of any arbitrary identity view but not identify with it. You don’t take it as your ultimate understanding of the nature of the world, or what it means to be this limited pattern in a giant system.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I mean, generally speaking, that’s obviously pretty good advice. It does seem to be something that’s constrained to the workings of the human mind as it is currently implemented. I mean, definitely all these Buddhists advises of “don’t identify with it” or “don’t get attached to it.” Ultimately, it cashes out in experiencing less of a craving, for example, or feeling less despair in some cases. Useful advice, not universally applicable.
For many people, their problem might be something like, sure, like desire, craving, attachment, in which case these Buddhist practices will actually be very helpful. But if your problem is something like a melancholic depression, then lack of desire doesn’t actually seem very appealing; that is the default state and it’s not a good one. Just be mindful of universalizing this advice.
David Pearce: Yes. Other things being equal, the happiest people tend to have the most desires. Of course, a tremendous desire can also bring tremendous suffering, but there are a very large number of people in the world who are essentially unmotivated. Nothing really excites them. In some cases, they’re just waiting to die: melancholic depression. Desire can be harnessed.
A big problem, of course, is that in a Darwinian world, many of our desires are mutually inconsistent. And to use (what to me at least would be) a trivial example – it’s not trivial to everyone – if you have 50 different football teams with all their supporters, there is logically no way that the preferences of these fanatical football supporters can be reconciled. But nonetheless, by raising their hedonic set-points, one can allow all football supporters to enjoy information-sensitive gradients of bliss. But there is simply no way to reconcile their preferences.
Lucas Perry: There’s part of me that does want to do some universalization here, and maybe that is wrong or unskillful to do, but I seem to be able to imagine a future where, say we get aligned superintelligence and there’s some kind of rapid expansion, some kind of optimization bubble of some kind. And maybe there are the worker AIs and then there are the exploiter AIs, and the exploiter AIs just get blissed out.
And imagine if some of the exploiter AIs are egomaniacs in their hedonistic simulations and some of them are hive minds, and they all have different views on open individualism or closed individualism. Some of the views on identity just seem more deluded to me than others. I seem to have a problem with a self identification and reification of self as something. It seems to me, to take something that is conventional and make it an ultimate truth, which is confusing to the agent, and that to me seems bad or wrong, like our world model is wrong. Part of me wants to say it is always better to know the truth, but I also feel like I’m having a hard time being able to say how to navigate views of identity in a true way, and then another part of me feels like actually it doesn’t really matter only in so far as it affects the flavor of that consciousness.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: If we find like the chemical or genetic levers for different notions of identity, we could presumably imagine a lot of different ecosystems of approaches to identity in the future, some of them perhaps being much more adaptive than others. I do think I grasp a little bit maybe the intuition pump, and I think that’s actually something that resonates quite a bit with us, which is that it is an instrumental value for sure to always be truth-seeking, especially when you’re talking about general intelligence.
It’s very weird and it sounds like it’s going to fail if you say, “Hey, I’m going to be truth-seeking in every domain except on here.” And these might be identity, or value function, or your model of physics or something like that, but perhaps actual superintelligence in some sense it really entails having an open-ended model for everything, including ultimately who you are. If you’re not having those open-ended models that can be revised with further evidence and reasoning, you are not a super intelligence.
That intuition pump may suggest that if intelligence turns out to be extremely adaptive and powerful, then presumably, the superintelligences of the future will have true models of what’s actually going on in the world, not just convenient fictions.
David Pearce: Yes. In some sense I would hope our long-term goal is ignorance of the entire Darwinian era and its horrors. But it would be extremely dangerous if we were to give up prematurely. We need to understand reality and the theoretical upper bounds of rational moral agency in the cosmos. But ultimately, when we have done literally everything that it is possible to do to minimize and prevent suffering, I think in some sense we should want to forget about it altogether. But I would stress the risks of premature defeatism.
Lucas Perry: Of course we’re always going to need a self model, a model of the cognitive architecture in which the self model is embedded, it needs to understand the directly adjacent computations which are integrated into it, but it seems like the views of identity go beyond just this self model. Is that the solution to identity? What does open, closed, or empty individualism have to say about something like that?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Open, empty and closed as ontological claims, yeah, I mean they are separable from the functional uses of a self model. It does however, have bearings on basically the decision theoretic rationality of an intelligence, because when it comes to planning ahead, if you have the intense objective of being as happy as you can, and somebody offers you a cloning machine and they say, “Hey, you can trade one year of your life for just a completely new copy of yourself.” Do you press the button to make that happen? For making that decision, you actually do require a model of ontological notion of identity, unless you just care about replication.
Lucas Perry: So I think that the problem there is that identity, at least in us apes, is caught up in ethics. If you could have an agent like that where identity was not factored into ethics, then I think that it would make a better decision.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: It’s definitely a question too of whether you can bootstrap an impartial god’s-eye-view on the wellbeing of all sentient beings without first having developed a sense of own identity and then wanting to preserve it, and finally updating it with more information, you know, philosophy, reasoning, physics. I do wonder if you can start out without caring about identity, and finally concluding with kind of an impartial god’s-eye-view. I think probably in practice a lot of those transitions do happen because the person is first concerned with themselves, and then they update the model of who they are based on more evidence. You know, I could be wrong, it might be possible to completely sidestep Darwinian identities and just jump straight up into impartial care for all sentient beings, I don’t know.
Lucas Perry: So we’re getting into the ethics of identity here, and why it matters. The question for this portion of the discussion is what are the ethical implications of different views on identity? Andres, I think you can sort of kick this conversation off by talking a little bit about the game theory.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Right, well yeah, the game theory is surprisingly complicated. Just consider within a given person, in fact, the different “sub agents” of an individual. Let’s say you’re drinking with your friends on a Friday evening, but you know you have to wake up early at 8:00 AM for whatever reason, and you’re deciding whether to have another drink or not. Your intoxicated self says, “Yes, of course. Tonight is all that matters.” Whereas your cautious self might try to persuade you that no, you will also exist tomorrow in the morning.
Within a given person, there’s all kinds of complex game theory that happens between alternative views of identity. Even implicitly it becomes obviously much more tricky when you expand it outwards, how like some social movements in a sense are trying to hack people’s view of identity, whether the unit is your political party, or the country, or the whole ecosystem, or whatever it may be. A key thing to consider here is the existence of legible Schelling points, also called focal points, which is in the essence of communication between entities, what are some kind of guiding principles that they can use in order to effectively coordinate and move towards a certain goal?
I would say that having something like open individualism itself can be a powerful Schelling point for coordination. Especially because if you can be convinced that somebody is an open individualist, you have reasons to trust them. There’s all of this research on how high-trust social environments are so much more conducive to productivity and long-term sustainability than low-trust environments, and expansive notions of identity are very trust building.
On the other hand, from a game theoretical point of view, you also have the problem of defection. Within an open individualist society, you have a small group of people who can fake the test of open individualism. They can take over from within, and instantiate some kind of a dictatorship or some type of a closed individualist takeover of what was a really good society, good for everybody.
This is a serious problem, even when it comes to, for example, forming groups of people with all of them share a certain experience. For example, MDMA, or 5-MeO-DMT, or let’s say deep stages of meditation. Even then, you’ve got to be careful, because people who are resistant to those states may pretend that they have an expanded notion of identity, but actually covertly work towards a much more reduced sense of identity. I have yet to see a credible game theoretically aware solution to how to make this work.
Lucas Perry: If you could clarify the knobs in a person, whether it be altruism, or selfishness, or other things that the different views on identity turn, and if you could clarify how that affects the game theory, then I think that that would be helpful.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I mean, I think the biggest knob is fundamentally what experiences count from the point of view of the fact that you expect to, in a sense, be there or expect them to be real, in as real of a way as your current experience is. It’s also contingent on theories of consciousness, because you could be an open individualist and still believe that higher order cognition is necessary for consciousness, and that non-human animals are not conscious. That gives rise to all sorts of other problems, the person presumably is altruistic and cares about others, but they just still don’t include non-human animals for a completely different reason in that case.
Definitely another knob is how you consider what you will be in the future. Whether you consider that to be part of the universe or the entirety of the universe. I guess I used to think that personal identity was very tied to a hedonic tone. I think of them as much more dissociated now. There is a general pattern: people who are very low mood may have kind of a bias towards empty individualism. People who become open individualists often experience a huge surge in positive feelings for a while because they feel that they’re never going to die, like the fear of death greatly diminishes, but I don’t actually think it’s a surefire or a foolproof way of increasing wellbeing, because if you take seriously open individualism, it also comes with terrible implications. Like that hey, we are also the pigs in factory farms. It’s not a very pleasant view.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I take that seriously.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I used to believe for a while that the best thing we could possibly do in the world was to just write a lot of essays and books about why open individualism is true. Now I think it’s important to combine it with consciousness technologies so that, hey, once we do want to upgrade our sense of identity to a greater circle of compassion, that we also have the enhanced happiness and mental stability to be able to actually engage with that without going crazy.
Lucas Perry: This has me thinking about one point that I think is very motivating for me for the ethical case of veganism. Take the common sense, normal consciousness, like most people have, and that I have, you just feel like a self that’s having an experience. You just feel like you are fortunate enough to be born as you, and to be having the Andrés experience or the Lucas experience, and that your life is from birth to death, or whatever, and when you die you will be annihilated, you will no longer have experience. Then who is it that is experiencing the cow consciousness? Who is it that is experiencing the chicken and the pig consciousness? There’s so many instantiations of that, like billions. Even if this is based off of the irrationality, it still feels motivating to me. Yeah, I could just die and wake up as a cow 10 billion times. That’s kind of the experience that is going on right now. The sudden confused awakening into cow consciousness plus factory farming conditions. I’m not sure if you find that completely irrational or motivating or what.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: No, I mean I think it makes sense. We have a common friend as well, Magnus Vinding. He wrote a pro-veganism book actually kind of with this line of reasoning. It’s called You Are Them. About how post theoretical science of consciousness and identity itself is a strong case for an ethical lifestyle.
Lucas Perry: Just touching here on the ethical implications, some other points that I just want to add here are that when one is identified with one’s phenomenal identity, in particular, I want to talk about the experience of self, where you feel like you’re a closed individualist, which your life is like when you were born, and then up until when you die, that’s you. I think that that breeds a very strong duality in terms of your relationship with your own personal phenomenal consciousness. The suffering and joy which you have direct access to are categorized as mine or not mine.
Those which are mine take high moral and ethical priority over the suffering of others. You’re not mind-melded with all of the other brains, right? So there’s an epistemological limitation there where you’re not directly experiencing the suffering of other people, but the closed individualist view goes a step further and isn’t just saying that there’s an epistemological limitation, but it’s also saying that this consciousness is mine, and that consciousness is yours, and this is the distinction between self and other. And given selfishness, that self consciousness will take moral priority over other consciousness.
That I think just obviously has massive ethical implications with regards to their greed of people. I view here the ethical implications as being important because, at least in the way that human beings function, if one is able to fully rid themselves of the ultimate identification with your personal consciousness as being the content of self, then I can move beyond the duality of consciousness of self and other, and care about all instances of wellbeing and suffering much more equally than I currently do. That to me seems harder to do, at least with human brains. If we have a strong reification and identification with your instances of suffering or wellbeing as your own.
David Pearce: Part of the problem is that the existence of other subjects of experience is metaphysical speculation. It’s metaphysical speculation that one should take extremely seriously: I’m not a solipsist. I believe that other subjects of experience, human and nonhuman, are as real as my experience. But nonetheless, it is still speculative and theoretical. One cannot feel their experiences. There is simply no way, given the way that we are constituted, the way we are now, that one can behave with impartial, God-like benevolence.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I guess I would question it perhaps a little bit that we only care about our future suffering within our own experience, because this is me, this is mine, it’s not an other. In a sense I think we care about those more, largely because they’re are more intense, you do see examples of, for example, mirror touch synesthesia, of people who if they see somebody else get hurt, they also experience pain. I don’t mean a fleeting sense of discomfort, but perhaps even actual strong pain because they’re able to kind of reflect that for whatever reason.
People like that are generally very motivated to help others as well. In a sense, their implicit self model includes others, or at least weighs others more than most people do. I mean in some sense you can perhaps make sense of selfishness in this context as the coincidence that what is within our self model is experienced as more intense. But there’s plenty of counter examples to that, including sense of depersonalization or ego death, where you can experience the feeling of God, for example, as being this eternal and impersonal force that is infinitely more intense than you, and therefore it matters more, even though you don’t experience it as you. Perhaps the core issue is what gets the highest amount of intensity within your world simulation.
Lucas Perry: Okay, so I also just want to touch on a little bit about preferences here before we move on to how this is relevant to AI alignment and the creation of beneficial AI. From the moral realist perspective, if you take the metaphysical existence of consciousness very substantially, and you view it as the ground of morality, then different views on identity will shift how you weight the preferences of other creatures.
So from a moral perspective, whatever kinds of views of identity end up broadening your moral circle of compassion closer and closer to the end goal of impartial benevolence for all sentient beings according to their degree and kinds of worth, I would view as a good thing. But now there’s this other way to think about identity because if you’re listening to this, and you’re a moral anti-realist, there is just the arbitrary, evolutionary, and historical set of preferences that exist across all creatures on the planet.
Then the views on identity I think are also obviously again going to weigh into your moral considerations about how much to just respect different preferences, right. One might want to go beyond hedonic consequentialism here, and could just be a preference consequentialist. You could be a deontological ethicist or a virtue ethicist too. We could also consider about how different views on identity as lived experiences would affect what it means to become virtuous, if being virtuous means moving beyond the self actually.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I think I understand what you’re getting at. I mean, really there’s kind of two components to ontology. One is what exists, and then the other one is what is valuable. You can arrive at something like open individualism just from the point of view of what exists, but still have disagreements with other open individualists about what is valuable. Alternatively, you could agree on what is valuable with somebody but completely disagree on what exists. To get the power of cooperation of open individualism as a Schelling point, there also needs to be some level of agreement on what is valuable, not just what exists.
It definitely sounds arrogant, but I do think that by the same principle by which you arrive at open individualism or empty individualism, basically nonstandard views of identities, you can also arrive at hedonistic utilitarianism, and that is, again, like the principle of really caring about knowing who or what you are fundamentally. To know yourself more deeply also entails understanding from second to second how your preferences impact your state of consciousness. It is my view that just as open individualism, you can think of it as the implication of taking a very systematic approach to make sense of identity. Likewise, philosophical hedonism is also an implication of taking a very systematic approach at trying to figure out what is valuable. How do we know that pleasure is good?
David Pearce: Yeah, does the pain-pleasure axis disclose the world’s intrinsic metric of (dis)value? There is something completely coercive about pleasure and pain. One can’t transcend the pleasure/pain axis. Compare the effects of taking heroin, or “enhanced interrogation”. There is no one with an inverted pleasure/pain axis. Supposed counter-examples, like sado-masochists, in fact just validate the primacy of the pleasure/pain axis.
What follows from the primacy of the pleasure/pain axis? Should we be aiming, as classical utilitarians urge, to maximize the positive abundance of subjective value in the universe, or at least our forward light-cone? But if we are classical utilitarians, there is a latently apocalyptic implication of classical utilitarianism – namely, that we ought to be aiming to launch something like a utilitronium (or hedonium) shockwave – where utilitronium or hedonium is matter and energy optimized for pure bliss.
So rather than any kind of notion of personal identity as we currently understand it, if one is a classical utilitarian – or if one is programming a computer or a robot with the utility function of classical utilitarianism – should one therefore essentially be aiming to launch an apocalyptic utilitronium shockwave? Or alternatively, should one be trying to ensure that the abundance of positive value within our cosmological horizon is suboptimal by classical utilitarian criteria?
I don’t actually personally advocate a utilitronium shockwave. I don’t think it’s sociologically realistic. I think much more sociologically realistic is to aim for a world based on gradients of intelligent bliss -because that way, people’s existing values and preferences can (for the most part) be conserved. But nonetheless, if one is a classical utilitarian, it’s not clear one is allowed this kind of messy compromise.
Lucas Perry: All right, so now that we’re getting into the juicy, hedonistic imperative type stuff, let’s talk about here how about how this is relevant to AI alignment and the creation of beneficial AI. I think that this is clear based off of the conversations we’ve had already about the ethical implications, and just how prevalent identity is in our world for the functioning of society and sociology, and just civilization in general.
Let’s limit the conversation for the moment just to AI alignment. And for this initial discussion of AI alignment, I just want to limit it to the definition of AI alignment as developing the technical process by which AIs can learn human preferences, and help further express and idealize humanity. So exploring how identity is important and meaningful for that process, two points I think that it’s relevant for, who are we making the AI for? Different views on identity I think would matter, because if we assume that sufficiently powerful and integrated AI systems are likely to have consciousness or to have qualia, they’re moral agents in themselves.
So who are we making the AI for? We’re making new patients or subjects of morality if we ground morality on consciousness. So from a purely egoistic point of view, the AI alignment process is just for humans. It’s just to get the AI to serve us. But if we care about all sentient beings impartially, and we just want to maximize conscious bliss in the world, and we don’t have this dualistic distinction of consciousness being self or other, we could make the AI alignment process something that is more purely altruistic. That we recognize that we’re creating something that is fundamentally more morally relevant than we are, given that it may have more profound capacities for experience or not.
David, I’m also holding in my hand, I know that you’re skeptical of the ability of AGI or superintelligence to be conscious. I agree that that’s not solved yet, but I’m just working here with the idea of, okay, maybe if they are. So I think it can change the altruism versus selfishness, the motivations around who we’re training the AIs for. And then the second part is why are we making the AI? Are we making it for ourselves or are we making it for the world?
If we take a view from nowhere, what Andrés called a god’s-eye-view, is this ultimately something that is for humanity or is it something ultimately for just making a better world? Personally, I feel that if the end goal is ultimate loving kindness and impartial ethical commitment to the wellbeing of all sentient creatures in all directions, then ideally the process is something that we’re doing for the world, and that we recognize the intrinsic moral worth of the AGI and superintelligence as ultimately more morally relevant descendants of ours. So I wonder if you guys have any reactions to this?
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah, yeah, definitely. So many. Tongue in cheek, but you’ve just made me chuckle when you said, “Why are we making the AI to begin with?” I think there’s a case to be made that the actual reason why we’re making AI is a kind of an impressive display of fitness in order to signal our intellectual fortitude and superiority. I mean sociologically speaking, you know, actually getting an AI to do something really well. It’s a way in which you can yourself signal your own intelligence, and I guess I worry to some extent that this is a bit of a tragedy of the commons, as it is the case with our weapon development. You’re so concerned with whether you can, and especially because of the social incentives, that you’re going to gain status and be looked at as somebody who’s really competent and smart, that you don’t really stop and wonder whether you should be building this thing in the first place.
Leaving that aside, just from a purely ethically motivated point of view, I do remember thinking and having a lot of discussions many years ago about if we can make a super computer experience what it is like for a human to be on MDMA. Then all of a sudden that supercomputer becomes a moral patient. It actually matters, you probably shouldn’t turn it off. Maybe in fact you should make more of them. A very important thing I’d like to say here is: I think it’s really important to distinguish the notion of intelligence.
On the one hand, as causal power over your environment, and on the other hand as the capacity for self insight, and introspection, and understanding reality. I would say that we tend to confuse these quite a bit. I mean especially in circles that don’t take consciousness very seriously. It’s usually implicitly assumed that having a superhuman ability to control your environment entails that you also have, in a sense, kind of a superhuman sense of self or a superhuman broad sense of intelligence. Whereas even if you are a functionalist, I mean even if you believe that a digital computer can be conscious, you can make a pretty strong case that even then, it is not something automatic. It’s not just that if you program the appropriate behavior, it will automatically also be conscious.
A super straight forward example here is that if you have the Chinese room, if it’s just a giant lookup table, clearly it is not a subject of experience, even though the input / output mapping might be very persuasive. There’s definitely still the problems there, and I think if we aim instead towards maximizing intelligence in the broad sense, that does entail also the ability to actually understand the nature and scope of other states of consciousness. And in that sense, I think a superintelligence of that sort would it be intrinsically aligned with the intrinsic values of consciousness. But there are just so many ways of making partial superintelligences that maybe are superintelligent in many ways, but not in that one in particular, and I worry about that.
David Pearce: I sometimes sketch this simplistic trichotomy, three conceptions of superintelligence. One is a kind of “Intelligence Explosion” of recursively self-improving software-based AI. Then there is the Kurzweilian scenario – a complete fusion of humans and our machines. And then there is, very crudely, biological superintelligence, not just rewriting our genetic source code, but also (and Neuralink prefigures this) essentially “narrow” superintelligence-on-a-chip so that anything that anything a classical digital computer can do a biological human or a transhuman can do.
So yes, I see full-spectrum superintelligence as our biological descendants, super-sentient, able to navigate radically alien states of consciousness. So I think the question that you’re asking is why are we developing “narrow” AI – non-biological machine superintelligence.
Lucas Perry: Speaking specifically from the AI alignment perspective, how you align current day systems and future systems to superintelligence and beyond with human values and preferences, and so the question born of that, in the context of these questions of identity, is who are we making that AI for and why are we making the AI?
David Pearce: If you’ve got Buddha, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering”… Buddha would press the OFF button, and I would press the OFF button.
Lucas Perry: What’s the off button?
David Pearce: Sorry, the notional initiation of a vacuum phase-transition (or something similar) that (instantaneously) obliterates Darwinian life. But when people talk about “AI alignment”, or most people working in the field at any rate, they are not talking about a Buddhist ethic [the end of suffering] – they have something else in mind. In practical terms, this is not a fruitful line of thought to pursue – you know, the implications of Buddhist, Benatarian, negative utilitarian, suffering-focused ethics.
Essentially that one wants to ratchet up hedonic range and hedonic set-points in such a way that you’re conserving people’s existing preferences – even though their existing preferences and values are, in many cases, in conflict with each other. Now, how one actually implements this in a classical digital computer, or a classically parallel connectionist system, or some kind of hybrid, I don’t know precisely.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: At least there is one pretty famous cognitive scientist and AI theorist does propose the Buddhist ethic of turning the off button of the universe. Thomas Metzinger, and his benevolent, artificial anti-natalism. I mean, yeah. Actually that’s pretty interesting because he explores the idea of an AI that truly kind of extrapolates human values and what’s good for us as subjects of experience. The AI concludes what we are psychologically unable to, which is that the ethical choice is non-existence.
But yeah, I mean, I think that’s, as David pointed out, implausible. I think it’s much better to put our efforts in creating a super cooperator cluster that tries to recalibrate the hedonic set point so that we are animated by gradients of bliss. Sociological constraints are really, really important here. Otherwise you risk…
Lucas Perry: Being irrelevant.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: … being irrelevant, yeah, is one thing. The other thing is unleashing an ineffective or failed attempt at sterilizing the world, which would be so much, much worse.
Lucas Perry: I don’t agree with this view, David. Generally, I think that Darwinian history has probably been net negative, but I’m extremely optimistic about how good the future can be. And so I think it’s an open question at the end of time, how much misery and suffering and positive experience there was. So I guess I would say I’m agnostic as to this question. But if we get AI alignment right, and these other things, then I think that it can be extremely good. And I just want to tether this back to identity and AI alignment.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I do have the strong intuition that if empty individualism is correct at an ontological level, then actually negative utilitarianism can be pretty strongly defended on the grounds that when you have a moment of intense suffering, that’s the entirety of that entity’s existence. And especially with eternalism, once it happens, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.
There’s something that seems particularly awful about allowing inherently negative experiences to just exist. That said, I think open individualism actually may to some extent weaken that. Because even if the suffering was very intense, you can still imagine that if you identify with consciousness as a whole, you may be willing to undergo some bad suffering as a trade-off for something much, much better in the future.
It sounds completely insane if you’re currently experiencing a cluster headache or something astronomically painful. But maybe from the point of view of eternity, it actually makes sense. Those are still tiny specs of experience relative to the beings that are going to exist in the future. You can imagine Jupiter brains and Dyson spheres just in a constant ecstatic state. I think open individualism might counterbalance some of the negative utilitarian worries and would be something that an AI would have to contemplate and might push it one way or the other.
Lucas Perry: Let’s go ahead and expand the definition of AI alignment. A broader way we can look at the AI alignment problem, or the problem of generating beneficial AI, and making future AI stuff go well, where that is understood is the project of making sure that the technical, political, social, and moral consequences of short-term to super intelligence and beyond, is that as we go through all of that, that is a beneficial process.
Thinking about identity in that process, we were talking about how strong nationalism or strong identity or identification with regards to a nation state is a form of identity construction that people do. The nation or the country becomes part of self. One of the problems of the AI alignment problem is arms racing between countries, and so taking shortcuts on safety. I’m not trying to propose clear answers or solutions here. It’s unclear how successful an intervention here could even be. But these views on identity and how much nationalism shifts or not, I think feed into how difficult or not the problem will be.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: The point of game theory becomes very, very important in that yes, you do want to help other people who are also trying to improve the well-being of all consciousness. On the other hand, if there’s a way to fake caring about the entirety of consciousness, that is a problem because then you would be using resources on people who would hoard them or even worse wrestle the power away from you so that they can focus on their narrow sense of identity.
In that sense, I think having technologies in order to set particular phenomenal experiences of identity, as well as to be able to detect them, might be super important. But above all, and I mean this is definitely my area of research, having a way of objectively quantifying how good or bad a state of consciousness is based on the activity of a nervous system seems to me like an extraordinarily key component for any kind of a serious AI alignment.
If you’re actually trying to prevent bad scenarios in the future, you’ve got to have a principle way of knowing whether the outcome is bad, or at the very least knowing whether the outcome is terrible. The aligned AI should be able to grasp that a certain state of consciousness, even if nobody has experienced it before, will be really bad and it should be avoided, and that tends to be the lens through which I see this.
In terms of improving people’s internal self-consistency, as David pointed out, I think it’s kind of pointless to try to satisfy a lot of people’s preferences, such as having their favorite sports team win, because there’s really just no way of satisfying everybody’s preferences. In the realm of psychology is where a lot of these interventions would happen. You can’t expect an AI to be aligned with you, if you yourself are not aligned with yourself, right, if you have all of these strange, psychotic, competing sub-agents. It seems like part of the process is going to be developing techniques to become more consistent, so that we can actually be helped.
David Pearce: In terms of risks this century, nationalism has been responsible for most of the wars of the past two centuries, and nationalism is highly likely to lead to catastrophic war this century. And the underlying source of global catastrophic risk? I don’t think it’s AI. It’s male human primates doing what male human primates have been “designed” by evolution to do – to fight, to compete, to wage war. And even vegan pacifists like me, how do we spend their leisure time? Playing violent video games.
There are technical ways one can envisage mitigating the risk. Perhaps it’s unduly optimistic aiming for all-female governance or for a democratically-accountable world state under the auspices of the United Nations. But I think unless one does have somebody with a monopoly on the use of force that we are going to have cataclysmic nuclear war this century. It’s highly likely: I think we’re sleepwalking our way towards disaster. It’s more intellectually exciting discussing exotic risks from AI that goes FOOM, or something like that. But there are much more mundane catastrophes that are, I suspect, going to unfold this century.
Lucas Perry: All right, so getting into the other part here about AI alignment and beneficial AI throughout this next century, there’s a lot of different things that increased intelligence and capacity and power over the world is going to enable. There’s going to be human biological species divergence via AI-enabled bioengineering. There is this fundamental desire for immortality with many people, and the drive towards super intelligence and beyond for some people promises immortality. I think that in terms of closed individualism here, closed individualism is extremely motivating for this extreme self-concern of desire for immortality.
There are people currently today who are investing in say, cryonics, because they want to freeze themselves and make it long enough so that they can somehow become immortal, very clearly influenced by their ideas of identity. As Yuval Noah Harari was saying on our last podcast, it subverts many of the classic liberal myths that we have about the same intrinsic worth across all people; and then if you add humans 2.0 or 3.0 or 4.0 into the mixture, it’s going to subvert that even more. So there are important questions of identity there, I think.
With sufficiently advanced super intelligence people flirt with the idea of being uploaded. The identity questions here which are relevant are if we scan the information architecture or the neural architecture of your brain and upload it, will people feel like that is them? Is it not them? What does it mean to be you? Also, of course, in scenarios where people want to merge with the AI, what is it that you would want to be kept in the merging process? What is superfluous to you? What is not nonessential to your identity or what it means to be you, that you would be okay or not with merging?
And then I think that most importantly here, I’m very interested in the Descendants scenario, where we just view AI as like our evolutionary descendants. There’s this tendency in humanity to not be okay with this descendant scenario. Because of closed individualist views on identity, they won’t see that consciousness is the same kind of thing, or they won’t see it as their own consciousness. They see that well-being through the lens of self and other, so that makes people less interested in they’re being descendant, super-intelligent conscious AIs. Maybe there’s also a bit of speciesism in there.
I wonder if you guys want to have any reactions to identity in any of these processes? Again, they are human, biological species divergence via AI-enabled bioengineering, immortality, uploads, merging, or the Descendants scenario.
David Pearce: In spite of thinking that Darwinian life is sentient malware, I think cryonics should be opt-out, and cryothanasia should be opt-in, as a way to defang death. So long as someone is suspended in optimal conditions, it ought to be possible for advanced intelligence to reanimate that person. And sure, if one is an “empty” individualist, or if you’re the kind of person who wakes up in the morning troubled that you’re not the person who went to sleep last night, this reanimated person may not really be “you”. But if you’re more normal, yes, I think it should be possible to reanimate “you” if you are suspended.
In terms of mind uploads, this is back to the binding problem. Even assuming that you can be scanned with a moderate degree of fidelity, I don’t think your notional digital counterpart is a subject to experience. Even if I am completely wrong here and that somehow subjects or experience inexplicably emerge in classical digital computers, there’s no guarantee that the qualia would be the same. After all, you can replay a game of chess with perfect fidelity, but there’s no guarantee incidentals like the textures or the pieces will be the same. Why expect the textures of qualia to be the same, but that isn’t really my objection. It’s the fact that a digital computer cannot support phenomenally-bound subjects of experience.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I also think cryonics is really good. Even though with a different nonstandard view of personal identity, it’s kind of puzzling. Why would you care about it? Lots of practical considerations. I like what David said of like defanging death. I think that’s a good idea, but also giving people skin in the game for the future.
People who enact policy and become politically successful, often tend to be 50 years plus, and there’s a lot of things that they weigh on, that they will not actually get to experience, that probably biases politicians and people who are enacting policy to focus, especially just on short-term gains as opposed to really genuinely trying to improve the long-term; and I think cryonics would be helpful in giving people skin in the game.
More broadly speaking, it does seem to be the case that what aspect of transhumanism a person is likely to focus on depends a lot on their theories of identity. I mean, if we break down transhumanism into the three supers of super happiness, super longevity, and super intelligence, the longevity branch is pretty large. There’s a lot of people looking for ways of rejuvenating, preventing aging, and reviving ourselves, or even uploading ourselves.
Then there’s people who are very interested in super intelligence. I think that’s probably the most popular type of transhumanism nowadays. That one I think does rely to some extent on people having a functionalist information theoretic account of their own identity. There’s all of these tropes of, “Hey, if you leave a large enough digital footprint online, a super intelligence will be able to reverse engineer your brain just from that, and maybe reanimate you in the future,” or something of that nature.
And then there’s, yeah, people like David and I, and the Qualia Research Institute as well, that care primarily about super happiness. We think of it as kind of a requirement for a future that is actually worth living. You can have all the longevity and all the intelligence you want, but if you’re not happy, I don’t really see the point. A lot of the concerns with longevity, fear of death and so on, in retrospect, I think will be probably considered some kind of a neurosis. Obviously a genetically adaptive neurosis, but something that can be cured with mood-enhancing technologies.
Lucas Perry: Leveraging human selfishness or leveraging how most people are closed individualists seems like the way to having good AI alignment. To one extent, I find the immortality pursuits through cryonics to be pretty elitist. But I think it’s a really good point that giving the policymakers and the older generation and people in power more skin in the game over the future is both potentially very good and also very scary.
It’s very scary to the extent to which they could get absolute power, but also very good if you’re able to mitigate risks of them developing absolute power. But again, as you said, it motivates them towards more deeply and profoundly considering future considerations, being less myopic, being less selfish. So that getting the AI alignment process right and doing the necessary technical work, it’s not done for a short-term nationalistic gain. Again, with an asterisk here that the risk is unilaterally getting more and more power.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Also, without cryonics, another way to increase skin in the game, may be more straight-forwardly positive. Bliss technologies do that. A lot of people who are depressed or nihilistic or vengeful or misanthropic, they don’t really care about destroying the world or watching it burn, so to speak, because they don’t have anything to lose. But if you have a really reliable MDMA-like technological device that reliably produces wonderful states of consciousness, I think people will be much more careful about preserving their own health, and also not watch the world burn, because they know “I could be back home and actually experiencing this rather than just trying to satisfy my misanthropic desires.”
David Pearce: Yeah, the happiest people I know work in the field of existential risk. Rather than great happiness just making people reckless, it can also make them more inclined to conserve and protect.
Lucas Perry: Awesome. I guess just one more thing that I wanted to hit on these different ways that technology is going to change society is… I don’t know. In my heart, the ideal is the vow to liberate all sentient beings in all directions from suffering. The closed individualist view seems generally fairly antithetical to that, but there’s also this desire for me to be realistic about leveraging that human selfishness towards that ethic. The capacity here for conversations on identity going forward, if we can at least give people more information to subvert or challenge or give them information about why the common sense closed individualist view might be wrong, I think it would just have a ton of implications for how people end up viewing human species divergence, or immortality, or uploads, or merging, or the Descendants scenario.
In Max’s book, Life 3.0, he describes a bunch of different scenarios for how you want the world to be as the impact of AI grows, if we’re lucky enough to reach superintelligent AI. These scenarios that he gives are, for example, an Egalitarian Utopia where humans, cyborgs and uploads coexist peacefully thanks to property abolition and guaranteed income. There’s a Libertarian Utopia where human, cyborgs, and uploads, and superintelligences coexist peacefully thanks to property rights. There is a Protector God scenario where essentially omniscient and omnipotent AI maximizes human happiness by intervening only in ways that preserve our feeling of control of our own destiny, and hides well enough that many humans even doubt the AI’s existence. There’s Enslaved God, which is kind of self-evident. The AI is a slave to our will. The Descendants Scenario, which I described earlier, where AIs replace human beings, but give us a graceful exit, making us view them as our worthy descendants, much as parents feel happy and proud to have a child who’s smarter than them, who learns from them, and then accomplishes what they could only dream of, even if they can’t live to see it.
After the book was released, Max did a survey of which ideal societies people were most excited about. And basically most people wanted either the Egalitarian Utopia or the Libertarian Utopia. These are very human centric of course, because I think most people are closed individualists, so okay, they’re going to pick that. And then they wanted to Protector God next, and then the fourth most popular was an Enslaved God. The fifth most popular was Descendants.
I’m a very big fan of the Descendants scenario. Maybe it’s because of my empty individualism. I just feel here that as views on identity are quite uninformed for most people or most people don’t take it, or closed individualism just seems intuitively true from the beginning because it seems like it’s been selected for mostly by Darwinian evolution to have a very strong sense of self. I just think that challenging conventional views on identity will very much shift the kinds of worlds that people are okay with or the kinds of worlds that people want.
If we had a big, massive public education campaign about the philosophy of identity and then take the same survey later, I think that the numbers would be much more different. That seems to be a necessary part of the education of humanity in the process of beneficial AI and AI alignment. To me, the Descendant scenario just seems best because it’s more clearly in line with this ethic of being impartially devoted to maximizing the well-being of sentience everywhere.
I’m curious to know your guys’ reaction to these different scenarios about how you feel views on identity as they shift will inform the kinds of worlds that humanity finds beautiful or meaningful or worthy of pursuit through and with AI.
David Pearce: If today’s hedonic range is -10 to zero to +10, yes, whether building a civilization with a hedonic range of +70 to +100, i.e. with more hedonic contrast, or +90 to a +100 with less hedonic contrast, the multiple phase-changes in consciousness involved are completely inconceivable to humans. But in terms of full-spectrum superintelligence, what we don’t know is the nature of their radically alien-state-spaces of consciousness – far more different than, let’s say, dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness – that I suspect that intelligence going to explore. And we just do not have the language, the concepts, to conceptualize what these alien state-spaces of consciousness are like. I suspect billions of years of consciousness-exploration lie ahead. I assume that a central element will be the pleasure-axis – that these states will be generically wonderful – but they will otherwise be completely alien. And so talk of “identity” with primitive Darwinian malware like us is quite fanciful.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: Consider the following thought experiment where you have a chimpanzee right next to a person, who is right next to another person, where the third one is currently on a high dose of DMT, combined with ketamine and salvia. If you consider those three entities, I think very likely, actually the experience of the chimpanzee and the experience of the sober person are very much alike, compared to the person who is on DMT, ketamine, and salvia, who is in a completely different alien-state space of consciousness. And in some sense, biologically you’re unrelatable from the point of view of qualia and the sense of self, and time, and space, and all of those things.
Personally, I think having intimations with alien-state spaces of consciousness is actually good also quite apart from changes in a feeling that you’ve become one with the universe. Merely having experience with really different states of consciousness makes it easier for you to identify with consciousness as a whole: you realize, okay, my DMT self, so to speak, cannot exist naturally, and it’s just so much different to who I am normally, and even more different than perhaps being a chimpanzee, that you could imagine caring as well about alien-state spaces of consciousness that are completely nonhuman, and I think that it can be pretty helpful.
The other reason why I give a lot of credence to open individualism being a winning strategy, even just from a purely political and sociological point of view, is that open individualists are not afraid of changing their own state of consciousness, because they realize that it will be them either way. Whereas closed individualists can actually be pretty scared of, for example, taking DMT or something like that. They tend to have at least the suspicion that, oh my gosh, is the person who is going to be on DMT me? Am I going to be there? Or maybe I’m just being possessed by a different entity with completely different values and consciousness.
With open individualism, no matter what type of consciousness your brain generates, it’s going to be you. It massively amplifies the degrees of freedom for coordination. Plus, you’re not afraid of tuning your consciousness for particular new computational uses. Again, this could be extremely powerful as a cooperation and coordination tool.
To summarize, I think a plausible and very nice future scenario is going to be the mixture of open individualism, on the one hand; second, generically enhanced hedonic tone, so that everything is amazing; and third, expanded range of possible experiences. That we will have the tools to experience pretty much arbitrary state spaces of consciousness and consider them our own.
The Descendant scenario, I think it’s much easier to imagine thinking of the new entities as your offspring if you can at least know what they feel like. You can take a drug or something and know, “okay, this is what it’s like to be a post-human android. I like it. This is wonderful. It’s better than being a human.” That would make it possible.
Lucas Perry: Wonderful. This last question is just the role of identity in the AI itself, or the superintelligence itself, as it experiences the world, the ethical implications of those identity models, et cetera. There is the question of identity now, and if we get aligned superintelligence and post-human superintelligence, and we have Jupiter rings or Dyson spheres or whatever, that there’s the question of identity evolving in that system. We are very much creating Life 3.0, and there is a substantive question of what kind of identity views it will take, what it’s phenomenal experience of self or not will have. This all is relevant and important because if we’re concerned with maximizing conscious well-being, then these are flavors of consciousness which would require a sufficiently, rigorous science of consciousness to understand their valence properties.
Andrés Gómez Emilsson: I mean, I think it’s a really, really good thing to think about. The overall frame I tend to utilize, to analyze this kind of questions is, I wrote an article and you can find it in Qualia Computing that is called “Consciousness Versus Replicators.” I think that is a pretty good overarching ethical framework where I basically, I describe how different kinds of ethics can give different worldviews, but also they depend on your philosophical sophistication.
At the very beginning, you have ethics such as the battle between good and evil, but then you start introspecting. You’re like, “okay, what is evil exactly,” and you realize that nobody sets out to do evil from the very beginning. Usually, they actually have motivations that make sense within their own experience. Then you shift towards this other theory that’s called the balance between good and evil, super common in Eastern religions. Also, people who take a lot of psychedelics or meditate a lot tend to arrive to that view, as in like, “oh, don’t be too concerned about suffering or the universe. It’s all a huge yin and yang. The evil part makes the good part better,” or like weird things like that.
Then you have a little bit more developed, what I call it gradients of wisdom. I would say like Sam Harris, and definitely a lot of people in our community think that way, which is they come to the realization that there are societies that don’t help human flourishing, and there are ideologies that do, and it’s really important to be discerning. We can’t just say, “Hey, everything is equally good.”
But finally, I would say the fourth level would be consciousness versus replicators, which involves, one, taking open individualism seriously; and second, realizing that anything that matters, it matters because it influences experiences. Can you have that as your underlying ethical principle? There’s this danger of replicators hijacking our motivational architecture in order to pursue their own replication, independent of the well-being of sentience, and you guard for that. I think you’re in a pretty good space to actually do a lot of good. I would say perhaps that is the sort of ethics or morality we should think about how to instantiate in an artificial intelligence.
In the extreme, you have what I call a pure replicator, and a pure replicator essentially is a system or an entity that uses all of its resources exclusively to make copies of itself, independently of whether that causes good or bad experiences elsewhere. It just doesn’t care. I would argue that humans are not pure replicators. That in fact, we do care about consciousness, at the very least our own consciousness. And evolution is recruiting the fact that we care about consciousness in order to, as a side effect, increase our inclusiveness our genes.
But these discussions we’re having right now, this is the possibility of a post-human ethic is the genie is getting out of the bottle in the sense of consciousness is kind of taking its own values and trying to transcend the selfish genetic process that gave rise to it.
Lucas Perry: Ooh, I like that. That’s good. Anything to add, David?
David Pearce: No. Simply, I hope we have a Buddhist AI.
Lucas Perry: I agree. All right, so I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I feel more confused now than when I came in, which is very good. Yeah, thank you both so much for coming on.