I'm Steve Byrnes, a professional physicist in the Boston area. I have a summary of my AGI safety research interests at:

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Book review: Rethinking Consciousness


We also need (I would think) for the experience of consciousness to somehow cause your brain to instruct your hands to type "cogito ergo sum". From what you wrote, I'm sorta imagining physical laws plus experience glued to it ... and that physical laws without experience glued to it would still lead to the same nerve firing pattern, right? Or maybe you'll say physical laws without experience is logically impossible? Or what?

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

develop your own intuitive understanding of everything

I agree 100%!! That's the goal. And I'm not there yet with consciousness. That's why I used the word "annoying and unsatisfying" to describe my attempts to understand consciousness thus far. :-P

You should not be trusting textbook authors when they say that Theorem X is true

I'm not sure you quite followed what I wrote here.

I am saying that it's possible to understand a math proof well enough to have 100% confidence—on solely one's own authority—that the proof is mathematically correct, but still not understand it well enough to intuitively grok it. This typically happens when you can confirm that each step of the proof, taken on its own, is mathematically correct.

If you haven't lived this experience, maybe imagine that I give you a proof of the Riemann hypothesis in the form of 500 pages of equations kinda like this, with no English-language prose or variable names whatsoever. Then you spend 6 months checking rigorously that every line follows from the previous line (or program a computer to do that for you). OK, you have now verified on solely your own authority that the Riemann hypothesis is true. But if I now ask you why it's true, you can't give any answer better than "It's true because this 500-page argument shows it to be true".

So, that's a bit like where I'm at on consciousness. My "proof" is not 500 pages, it's just 4 steps, but that's still too much for me to hold the whole thing in my head and feel satisfied that I intuitively grok it.

  1. I am strongly disinclined to believe (as I think David Chalmers has suggested) that there's a notion of p-zombies, in which an unconscious system could have exactly the same thoughts and behaviors as a conscious one, even including writing books about the philosophy of consciousness, for reasons described here and elsewhere.

  2. If I believe (1), it seems to follow that I should endorse the claim "if we have a complete explanation of the meta-problem of consciousness, then there is nothing left to explain regarding the hard problem of consciousness". The argument more specifically is: Either the behavior in which a philosopher writes a book about consciousness has some causal relation to the nature of consciousness itself (in which case, solving the meta-problem requires understanding the nature of consciousness), or it doesn't (in which case, unconscious p-zombies should (bizarrely) be equally capable of writing philosophy books about consciousness).

  3. I think that Attention Schema Theory offers a complete and correct answer to every aspect of the meta-problem of consciousness, at least every aspect that I can think of.

  4. ...Therefore, I conclude that there is nothing to consciousness beyond the processes discussed in Attention Schema Theory.

I keep going through these steps and they all seem pretty solid, and so I feel somewhat obligated to accept the conclusion in step 4. But I find that conclusion highly unintuitive, I think for the same reason most people do—sorta like, why should any information processing feel like anything at all?

So, I need to either drag my intuitions into line with 1-4, or else crystallize my intuitions into a specific error in one of the steps 1-4. That's where I'm at right now. I appreciate you and others in this comment thread pointing me to helpful and interesting resources! :-)

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

Sorry for being sloppy, you can ignore what I said about "non-physical", I really just meant the more general point that "consciousness doesn't exist (if consciousness is defined as X)" is the same statement as "consciousness does not mean X, but rather Y", and I shouldn't have said "non-physical" at all. You sorta responded to that more general point, although I'm interested in whether you can say more about how exactly you define consciousness such that illusionism is not consciousness. (As I mentioned, I'm not sure I'll disagree with your definition!)

What would it take for it to be false?

I think that if attention schema theory can explain every thought and feeling I have about consciousness (as in my silly example conversation in the "meta-problem of consciousness" section), then there's nothing left to explain. I don't see any way around that. I would be looking for (1) some observable thought / behavior that AST cannot explain, (2) some reason to think those explanations are wrong, or (3) a good argument that true philosophical zombies are sensible, i.e. that you can have two systems whose every observable thought / behavior is identical but exactly one of them is conscious, or (4) some broader framework of thinking that accepts the AST story as far as it goes, and offers a different way to think about it intuitively and contextualize it.

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

Can you suggest a reference which you found helpful for "loading the right intuitions" about consciousness?

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

Ha! Maybe!

Or maybe it's like the times I've read poorly-written math textbooks, and there's a complicated proof of Theorem X, and I'm able to check that every step of the proof is correct, but all the steps seem random, and then out of nowhere, the last step says "Therefore, Theorem X is true". OK, well, I guess Theorem X is true then.

...But if I had previously found Theorem X to be unintuitive ("it seems like it shouldn't be true"), I'm now obligated to fix my faulty intuitions and construct new better ones to replace them, and doing so can be extremely challenging. In that sense, reading and verifying the confusing proof of Theorem X is "annoying and deeply unsatisfying".

(The really good math books offer both a rigorous proof of Theorem X and an intuitive way to think about things such that Theorem X is obviously true once those intuitions are internalized. That saves readers the work of searching out those intuitions for themselves from scratch.)

So, I'm not saying that Graziano's argument is poorly-written per se, but having read the book, I find myself more-or-less without any intuitions about consciousness that I can endorse upon reflection, and this is an annoying and unsatisfying situation. Hopefully I'll construct new better intuitions sooner or later. Or—less likely I think—I'll decide that Graziano's argument is baloney after all :-)

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

If you say that free will and consciousness are by definition non-physical, then if course naturalist explanations explain them away. But you can also choose to define the terms to encompass what you think is really going on. This is called "compatibilism" for free will, and this is Graziano's position on consciousness. I'm definitely signed up for compatibilism on free will and have been for many years, but I don't yet feel 100% comfortable calling Graziano's ideas "consciousness" (as he does), or if I do call it that, I'm not sure which of my intuitions and associations about "consciousness" are still applicable.

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

Yep! I agree with you: Rethinking Consciousness and those two Eliezer posts are coming from a similar place.

(Just to be clear, the phrase "meta-problem of consciousness" comes from David Chalmers, not Graziano. More generally, I don't know exactly which aspects of really anything here are original Graziano inventions, versus Graziano synthesizing ideas from the literature. I'm not familiar with the consciousness literature, and also I listened to the audio book which omits footnotes and references.)

Book review: Rethinking Consciousness

Yes! I have edited to make that clearer, thanks.

[Book Review] The Trouble with Physics

Do you think that the True Fundamental Laws of Physics are definitely not string theory (or anything mathematically related to string theory)? If so, why?

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