Wednesday, May 30, 2007

do we have a soul? does it survive death?

Blogging about transhumanism I wondered why people, normally so keen on nirvana, heaven etc, are so unimpressed by the idea that we could get closer to that point using technology. Tracy suggests that it's because these high tech solutions seem so distant and unlikely. I think that's a big part of it, it does sound unlikely and kind of crazy (though I also think a lot of people don't like it because the spiritual version just feels so much better).

The thing about the plausibility issue though is, exactly how plausible is it that our consciousness, or soul, survives death? Our minds, along with all our emotions, sense of self etc, are so very dependent on the physical condition of our brains that it seems very unlikely that our consciousness survives death. When someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease dies, which consciousness do they get in the afterlife?

Of course that doesn't made the odds that we'll all live a thousand years because of technology, better. Just that we shouldn't laugh at one thing because it's unlikely and then jump on another unlikely bandwagon. In fact I think we should focus our attention where the chances of success are highest, however small they are.

Friday, May 25, 2007

tip for today

Check the inside of your kettle.

Monday, May 21, 2007

free will and posthumans

If God is so great then why is there so much suffering? Again, you'll have to take my word for it that the free will defense is the generally regarded as the best response to this question. You have to pick free will or pain free bliss and free will is better.

Free will is a slippery thing but, even supposing that we have it, not everyone has the same amount of it. And the people who have the most of it could probably stand to have quite a lot more. It's our ability to make choices that suggests we have free will, but because of our biological nature, there are many things that we simply cannot make choices about. Children and the mentally handicapped are less free than ordinary people because we don't trust their ability to take many decisions. Presumeably beings much smarter and more mature than the most able humans are better able to make even more choices and hence are more free.

So, in the future, if we suceed in improving our capacities (becoming more free), and significantly reduce the amount of suffering in the world, what will God's excuse be then?

federer rules

Federer has cracked the Nadal code! Yeah right; Nadal was playing badly and Federer was playing well. Odds on Nadal to win next time.

Friday, May 18, 2007

are we living in a computer simulation?

My posts about computer simulations could probably use a little explaining. Here's the paper that made me take the idea seriously. It's very readable and, I think, fascinating; and it's better than reading my thoughts on the subject.

We run simulations all the time and it's not difficult to imagine us trying to run simulations of the development of our universe. If we did, and we have a naturalistic view of nature, it's possible that life would evolve in the simulation that was conscious like us. Do we have a good reasons for concluding that this has not already happened and that we exist in one of these simulations? I don't think so, in fact, unless we can think of good reasons why we will never reach a technological state much more advanced than now, or why, if we did nobody would run the simulations, there are good reasons to believe that we actually are in a simulation.

Greg has expressed some surprise at how I seem to have discovered religion. While I think it's a good idea to revise my estimates on some issues, mostly this means a change from vanishingly unlikely, to very unlikely. I still regard miracles as especially unlikely because there is so little decent evidence for them. Besides, the propositions are hardly very religious as we normally understand the word (I also don't think Greg was being serious).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

computers and "religion"

As you may have gathered, I think we might be living in a computer simulation. Although this does not affect my view on whether or not a "proper" God exists, it does (or should) change my probability estimates for a few things.
  1. I think it is much more likely that there is some form of life after this one.
  2. Miracles (where normal laws of physics are violated) are more likely.
  3. By our standards, the people who programmed our universe would be supremely powerful, almost like gods in fact.

I'm sure I'm leaving out other obvious implications.

Here's a question: If we became posthuman and were considering running an ancestor simulation and keeping in mind that the virtual beings would suffer just as we do in this world, would it be ethical to create a world like this one?

We would be able to create a world where natural disasters were slightly less common (or at least more evenly spread out), would we be justified in not doing this if we could?


Loyal muttblog readers may remember my last run in with the bank. Well, I finally got round to going back and trying again. This time they didn't need anything from me except my ID. I picked up my new card yesterday.

Care to explain Trevor?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

are you living in a computer simulation?

Some famous guy said something like this, "either we are alone in the universe, or we're not; either option is pretty incredible". I really like the quote, I guess we've all thought about the subject but the more I think about it the more interesting it seems, even though there's little new information on the topic.

Here's another thought; one of the following statements must be true:
  1. Something drastic will either wipe humans out, or massively curtail our development.
  2. No posthumans run ancestor simulations.
  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Whichever it is, I find it pretty incredible.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Humans are obsessed with reaching a state of never ending bliss. Religions promise heaven or nirvana and we search for gurus who claim to have achieved enlightenment and try do what they recommend.

A while back I came across this "letter from utopia" written by Nick Bostrom (or his future self). This utopia is not supernatural, it is a result of constant improvements to our condition. We can plausibly find ways of enhancing ourselves cognitively and emotionally. It's also plausible that one day humans will have very long lifespans. If we could do these things consistently over a long period of time we would end up living in a very different state to what we're used to. If the improvements are in a direction we could all agree are good, enough of them will get us to utopia (depending on what we decide qualifies).

I can't see any problem with this reasoning, but nobody I've spoken to has shown much enthusiasm for this potential utopia. Why not? Is it because it seems so soulless?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

pity I missed it

The Sen talk I went to was a little boring. I didn't disagree with the central theme of his talk which was, "the causes of violence are complicated" but I wasn't blown away either.

I'd rather have gone to the discussion the day after where Sen said:
If you're in a meeting, and somebody says, "The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer." just about nobody will contradict this, even though it is not true. Because, if you do, you're perceived as inhuman.
I've met people who think this poor getting poorer stuff is actually part of the definition of capitalism. I can also imagine the response to contradicting the statement, "So you're saying that [add group] are not poor!?", "GDP per capita in Zimbabwe has fallen by 33% over the past 10 years.", "The richest 1% received 50% of all the income in the past year." and so on and so forth.

or strangely tasteless

Those of you followed the link will probably have found it even more boring than you expected. This link will hopefully be more interesting.

Friday, May 04, 2007

mmmm... delicious is cool. If you wanna find articles or papers that I think are worth reading here's me. Though there are more interesting people to check out.

Everybody should join up and use this!


The Economist likes education vouchers. They work well, even when the voucher is worth half what's spent per pupil in government schools, yet, "Few ideas in education are more controversial than vouchers...". Controversial, means that teachers hate them.

Teachers who are convinced that
  1. they're underpaid
  2. they're heroes for still teaching at the low pay (no matter how poor the education kids get)
  3. it should be (almost) impossible to fire teachers
  4. bad teachers should earn the same as good teachers

are not my favourite people.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

democracy and stuff

Everybody agrees that democracy is not the ultimate value: if a majority favours killing all Jews it doesn't matter, you still don't do it. But how do you know which things are "just wrong"? You can't vote on it.

An argument against immigration (which I think is pretty good) is that the immigrants could come in and vote for horrible illiberal things, possibly undermining women’s rights, to take an example. So we say, "we have the power and we won't give you any because we worry what you will do with it."

That might sound ok, but the same argument could have been used to deny women the vote. Back in the day, men had all the power and there was a pretty good classical liberal status quo. Women like taxes and lots of other stuff that libertarians regard as rights violations. So men could deny women the right to vote for exactly the same reson as keeping foreigners out.

How is this argument against immigration different to the argument that women shouldn't vote?

These days it seems self evident that women should vote, but it hasn't always been this way. Opponents of immigration think it's self evident that immigrants have no right to enter. Proponents instinctively feel that people should be able to move around as they like.

How do you decide questions like this?

do you really want to learn?

Robin Hanson asks the question here:
As a researcher at NASA Ames Lab in the late 1980s, I found it easy to sit in on classes at nearby Stanford. I sat in on many classes in many departments, participating often in class discussions. I never applied for admission, or paid tuition, but no one ever complained. One professor even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class.

So anyone can learn at the very best schools for free, if they are willing to forego the credential. This free ride would probably stop if more than a few people took advantage of it. But in fact almost no one is actually interested in just learning, without the credential.
This sounds familiar. I started attending a few classes I thought I would enjoy but very quickly stopped. Almost everything is very boring it seems. I guess I just like the idea of going to cool sounding classes.

I wonder how much I actually learn from my travels on the internet...

Anyway, this is probably the biggest problem with my brilliant plan to open a school. Parents are not bothered if their kids actually learn anything, they are more interested in sending their kids to schools that people have heard of (in a good, poncy way) and generating grades that others recognise so they can rank children as better than most other kids.

And here's me, an "educator" who actually want kids to learn; it's very depressing.