Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God?

July 18, 2018

In 1967 British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar famously characterized science as, in book title form, The Art of the Soluble. “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them,” he wrote.

For millennia, the greatest minds of our species have grappled to gain purchase on the vertiginous ontological cliffs of three great mysteries—consciousness, free will and God—without ascending anywhere near the thin air of their peaks. Unlike other inscrutable problems, such as the structure of the atom, the molecular basis of replication and the causes of human violence, which have witnessed stunning advancements of enlightenment, these three seem to recede ever further away from understanding, even as we race ever faster to catch them in our scientific nets.

Are these “hard” problems, as philosopher David Chalmers characterized consciousness, or are they truly insoluble “mysterian” problems, as philosopher Owen Flanagan designated them (inspired by the 1960s rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians)? The “old mysterians” were dualists who believed in nonmaterial properties, such as the soul, that cannot be explained by natural processes. The “new mysterians,” Flanagan says, contend that consciousness can never be explained because of the limitations of human cognition. I contend that not only consciousness but also free will and God are mysterian problems—not because we are not yet smart enough to solve them but because they can never be solved, not even in principle, relating to how the concepts are conceived in language. Call those of us in this camp the “final mysterians.”

Consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness is represented by the qualitative experiences (qualia) of what it is like to be something. It is the first-person subjective experience of the world through the senses and brain of the organism. It is not possible to know what it is like to be a bat (in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous thought experiment), because if you altered your brain and body from humanoid to batoid, you would just be a bat, not a human knowing what it feels like to be a bat. You would not be like the traveling salesman in Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, who awakens to discover he has been transformed into a giant insect but still has human thoughts. You would just be an arthropod. By definition, only I can know my first-person experience of being me, and the same is true for you, bats and bugs.

Free will. Few scientists dispute that we live in a deterministic universe in which all effects have causes (except in quantum mechanics, although this just adds an element of randomness to the system, not freedom). And yet we all act as if we have free will—that we make choices among options and retain certain degrees of freedom within constraining systems. Either we are all delusional, or else the problem is framed to be conceptually impenetrable. We are not inert blobs of matter bandied about the pinball machine of life by the paddles of nature’s laws; we are active agents within the causal net of the universe, both determined by it and helping to determine it through our choices. That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge.

God. If the creator of the universe is supernatural—outside of space and time and nature’s laws—then by definition, no natural science can discover God through any measurements made by natural instruments. By definition, this God is an unsolvable mystery. If God is part of the natural world or somehow reaches into our universe from outside of it to stir the particles (to, say, perform miracles like healing the sick), we should be able to quantify such providential acts. This God is scientifically soluble, but so far all claims of such measurements have yet to exceed statistical chance. In any case, God as a natural being who is just a whole lot smarter and more powerful than us is not what most people conceive of as deific.

Although these final mysteries may not be solvable by science, they are compelling concepts nonetheless, well deserving of our scrutiny if for no other reason than it may lead to a deeper understanding of our nature as sentient, volitional, spiritual beings.

This article was originally published with the title “The Final Mysterians”

This article was originally published by: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/will-science-ever-solve-the-mysteries-of-consciousness-free-will-and-god/


Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god

October 18, 2017

Intranet service? Check. Autonomous motorcycle? Check. Driverless car technology? Check. Obviously the next logical project for a successful Silicon Valley engineer is to set up an AI-worshipping religious organization.

Anthony Levandowski, who is at the center of a legal battle between Uber and Google’s Waymo, has established a nonprofit religious corporation called Way of the Future, according to state filings first uncovered by Wired’s Backchannel. Way of the Future’s startling mission: “To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.”

Levandowski was co-founder of autonomous trucking company Otto, which Uber bought in 2016. He was fired from Uber in May amid allegations that he had stolen trade secrets from Google to develop Otto’s self-driving technology. He must be grateful for this religious fall-back project, first registered in 2015.

The Way of the Future team did not respond to requests for more information about their proposed benevolent AI overlord, but history tells us that new technologies and scientific discoveries have continually shaped religion, killing old gods and giving birth to new ones.

As author Yuval Noah Harari notes: “That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasised about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.”

Religions, Harari argues, must keep up with the technological advancements of the day or they become irrelevant, unable to answer or understand the quandaries facing their disciples.

“The church does a terrible job of reaching out to Silicon Valley types,” acknowledges Christopher Benek a pastor in Florida and founding chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association.

Silicon Valley, meanwhile, has sought solace in technology and has developed quasi-religious concepts including the “singularity”, the hypothesis that machines will eventually be so smart that they will outperform all human capabilities, leading to a superhuman intelligence that will be so sophisticated it will be incomprehensible to our tiny fleshy, rational brains.

Anthony Levandowski, the former head of Uber’s self-driving program, with one of the company’s driverless cars in San Francisco. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

For futurists like Ray Kurzweil, this means we’ll be able to upload copies of our brains to these machines, leading to digital immortality. Others like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warn that such systems pose an existential threat to humanity.

“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon,” Musk said at a conference in 2014. “In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out.”

Benek argues that advanced AI is compatible with Christianity – it’s just another technology that humans have created under guidance from God that can be used for good or evil.

“I totally think that AI can participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes,” he said, by ensuring it is imbued with Christian values.

“Even if people don’t buy organized religion, they can buy into ‘do unto others’.”

For transhumanist and “recovering Catholic” Zoltan Istvan, religion and science converge conceptually in the singularity.

“God, if it exists as the most powerful of all singularities, has certainly already become pure organized intelligence,” he said, referring to an intelligence that “spans the universe through subatomic manipulation of physics”.

“And perhaps, there are other forms of intelligence more complicated than that which already exist and which already permeate our entire existence. Talk about ghost in the machine,” he added.

For Istvan, an AI-based God is likely to be more rational and more attractive than current concepts (“the Bible is a sadistic book”) and, he added, “this God will actually exist and hopefully will do things for us.”

We don’t know whether Levandowski’s Godhead ties into any existing theologies or is a manmade alternative, but it’s clear that advancements in technologies including AI and bioengineering kick up the kinds of ethical and moral dilemmas that make humans seek the advice and comfort from a higher power: what will humans do once artificial intelligence outperforms us in most tasks? How will society be affected by the ability to create super-smart, athletic “designer babies” that only the rich can afford? Should a driverless car kill five pedestrians or swerve to the side to kill the owner?

If traditional religions don’t have the answer, AI – or at least the promise of AI – might be alluring.

Original source: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/28/artificial-intelligence-god-anthony-levandowski