[ExI] Do digital computers feel was Re: Is the wave function real?

Stathis Papaioannou stathisp at gmail.com
Mon Dec 12 10:07:23 UTC 2016

On 11 December 2016 at 17:26, Rafal Smigrodzki <rafal.smigrodzki at gmail.com>

> On Mon, Dec 5, 2016 at 12:38 AM, Colin Hales <col.hales at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Whatever the universe is made of,  you and I and the rest of it are all
>> made of it.
>> Whatever the universe is made of, it is capable of creating an observer
>> (scientists) inside it.
> ### It occurred to me that "conscious" observers (i.e. experiencing
> qualia) could be qualitatively different from digital simulations of minds,
> even if their behavior was indistinguishable. Of course we do not know much
> about the subject, and have to use intuition rather than more explicit
> knowledge. Let's then examine our intuitions and try to identify boundary
> conditions under which they might be true.
> Let's consider a neural network, capable of reading the alphabet, being
> shown pictures of a letter. Furthermore, this network is built from a very
> high resolution scan of a human who reads. The fidelity of the simulation
> is arbitrarily high but it is a digital simulation - one not using quantum
> phenomena or other forms of analog computation.
> Let's run this network a hundred times from one starting point, feeding it
> the same input, for example the letter A. Obviously, it will produce the
> same output - "I see the letter A". Do we have a human mind there, reading
> the letter a hundred times?
> I don't know. The run in a digital computer consists of operations on
> bitstrings - input, processing, output, all of that can be described by a
> single finite bitstring. Each of the runs is equivalent to a re-examination
> of the same bitstring. If the identity of indiscernibles holds, then all
> the runs are in fact analyzing a single mathematical object. The same
> pertains to runs simulating a human hit with a baseball bat - all the runs
> are equivalent to a single bitstring. Is there a human screaming a hundred
> times in agony in your computer, or is he screaming once, or is it just
> unfeeling numbers, a digital ghost devoid of qualia?
> I find it difficult to think that a single mathematical object can
> experience qualia every time it is examined with the use of a digital
> computer.

I don't see why this should be a special consideration for digital
computers. In a multiverse, if a bilogical brain instantiating an
experience is repeated a hundred times, is that a hundred instances of the
experience or only one? What about if it is repeated an infinite number of

> Let's continue our experiments. The human simulation will reliably read
> "A" even if you bit-flip a single simulated molecule in a simulated synapse
> - the way the human brain is built, you cannot affect a high level quale,
> such as perceiving a letter, by introducing a small amount of noise below
> some threshold. The simulated digital mind will be similarly resistant to
> digital noise introduced at that level. In fact, you could bit-flip every
> single synapse in the mind, which is equivalent to a brief epileptic
> seizure, and still get the same reading, slightly delayed. You could
> generate a large number of specific, non-identical instances of this
> digital noise and use them to run the network a hundred times. Each of the
> runs would be the equivalent to a different bitstring, a hundred different
> mathematical objects. Do we have a human reading "A" or being hit with a
> bat a hundred times here, or not?
> I don't know. If all you need to generate consciousness is to calculate a
> bitstring according to a digital program then yes, there are a hundred
> instances of a feeling human here. But there is something off here. In the
> experiment without digital noise, identity of indiscernibles makes it
> difficult for me to claim there were multiple separate instances of
> consciousness. How could a single bit flip, completely incapable of
> changing the reported experience ("I see the letter A"), manage to generate
> separate instances of consciousness in the experimental runs?
My guess here is that digital noise alone cannot trigger separate instances
> of perceiving qualia in digital computational runs. Such experiments look
> at the properties of idealized, platonic forms, built of finite numbers of
> elements. I guess that finite mathematical objects are qualitatively
> different from our physical reality. On a metaphysical level, I would
> surmise that observable physics contains mathematical infinities. This is
> of course just an idle act of faith on my part, not any well-formed type of
> knowledge. I don't understand infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces, so my
> hunch about our QM world being built of infinities is just
> pattern-matching, not inference.
> Let's continue our experiments. We download out simulation into a hundred
> physical copies of the human brain. Every neuron, every synapse and every
> atom is in the same corresponding spot in all copies. We show them the
> letter A by stimulating their optic nerves and all produce the output "I
> see the letter A". Using our advanced monitoring hardware we verify that
> the physical noise at the level of individual neurons is similar to the
> digital noise introduced by out bit flip in the previous experiment. Do we
> have a hundred humans here thinking separate conscious thoughts?

If the hundred copies generate the same experience, whether in biological
brains or computers (differing from each other only below a certain
threshold), I would say there is only one experience. If my mind at present
is being implemented on a hundred machines (brains or computers) running in
lockstep, I don't care if all but one of them is shut down, because my
consciousness will continue running on the remaining one. In other words,
if my mind is implemented on one of a hundred machines running in lockstep,
I have no way of knowing which machine it is running on, which machine my
last thought ran on, or which machine my next thought will run on. As long
as at least one machine keeps running, I'm happy; the other machines are
useful only as backups, in case some of them fail.

> Most of us would say yes. A hundred physically existing human brains,
> generating the known observable correlates of thinking - EEG patterns,
> synapse activations, producing verbal output - that's a hundred conscious
> thoughts experiencing qualia, or else no human is conscious.
> We have three sets of experiments on similar entities yielding different
> intuitions about the entities. What has changed between the sets?
> As I hinted at above, first two sets are reducible to finite bitstrings
> (i.e. can be completely recorded and predicted by manipulation or
> properties of finite bitstrings). Whether the third set can be described by
> finite bitstrings would depend on the ultimate physical nature of reality.
> If quantum-mechanical physical objects (a bit of a pleonasm, isn't it) are
> indeed defined by mathematical objects that are not equivalent to finite
> bitstrings, such as real numbers, uncomputable numbers, or others, then an
> analog computer such as a human brain or quantum computer would be
> qualitatively different from a digital computer, in an irreducible way.
> For any human brain you could produce a digital simulation that over at
> least some time span would behave identically to the physical
> instantiation, and even retain an identical high-level information
> processing structure. If there is an irreducible difference in the
> mathematical objects underpinning the analog/human and the digital
> simulation, it might be possible for metaphysical zombies to exist.

Consider what would happen if you replaced a volume of biological neural
tissue with artificial neurons, designed to mimic as closely as possible
its I/O behaviour. Would the brain as a whole continue to behave the same
way? If not, what sort of deficits would you expect?

> My argument is not constructed to support dualism in the usual sense, it
> is not a critique of physicalism, and it goes off at a tangent to the
> zombie literature I am familiar with. Rather, I am trying to organize my
> thinking about modal realism. I am definitely a physicalist when it comes
> to the hard problem of consciousness but then I am also a modal realist
> when it comes to metaphysics. I do believe that physical existence is a
> member of the ultimate ensemble of mathematics but then our physical
> existence may use more complicated mathematics than can fit in our minds.
> Or our digital computers.
> I intuit that digital objects exist outside of time, isolated from our
> time-like reality, like some other platonic mathematical forms. We do not
> interact with them in the same way as we do with physical objects, we
> merely examine their existence. But we interact with the mathematical
> objects that make up our physical reality, flowing through infinities of
> time-like correlated states, and our consciousness is how higher
> mathematics feels from the inside. I am modestly inclined to believe it but
> I am not quite sure. Maybe merely embedding a model of a platonic
> mathematical object in our physical computers imbues such object with new
> properties? The mind boggles.
> On a more practical level, if there are digital p-zombies, it means it's
> morally OK to shoot NPCs in digital computer games, no matter how life-like
> are their pleadings. Or perhaps my intuition is wrong, and little programs
> running reinforcement learning could be tormented souls.

Stathis Papaioannou
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