Progress in Dialogue – Thomas Metzinger meets Sam Harris

Sam Harris conversation with Thomas Metzinger in the Waking Up Podcast.

Hat tip to Terry Waites for the link as a conversation starter:

Brain dump only whilst listening (few sentences / little editing) :

In usual “naive” Sam Harris way the conversation skips superficially across many topics, and Metzinger is himself highly politically motivated. These days (ie post-psychedelics) Harris mode is naivety, he’s learning with his listeners – see his most recent Dan Dennett and Maajid Nawaz conversations – he’s learning how little he knows, chastened in fact I said (though the first time I noticed this change I wasn’t aware of his psychedelic experience). And Metzinger I’ve noted before – part of the Tucson & ASSC movements – much good stuff on taking the subjective seriously in the science of consciousness. Metzinger does also cite Dennett – the latter being the hook on which I hang my own position, there are so many moving parts in a conversation like this.

On consciousness:

Consciousness not a problem any more. Neural correlates will solve the problem – future. [Despite saying this nothing Kitzinger says seems to impinge on neuro-science?]
Hard problem not the problem and zombie conceivability is a thought experiment only.
Nagel’s bat too is good thought experiment [for bringing the subjective into focus].

“Because Complexity” is not the answer to why and how consciousness, even though complexity is part of the problem and processes we’re dealing with and will need to be part of “full” explanations. Kitzinger’s strategy is to focus on the things we can think about most simply [see his 2012 Edge response]

[Now we’re talking] – The value of intuition? Are brute – logical, mathematical – facts of physics meaningful if entirely counter-intuitive. [Not if they remain so – still useful as part of the process – I say. Like Dennett most new knowledge starts as counter-intuitive, almost by definition.]

As with life, so with consciousness [See Seth earlier]. It only seems like magic dust sprinkled on the physical, eventually the explanations become intuitive.

Knowing means something even without recall of the why – without knowing actual evidence and logical explanation. Much intuitive knowledge is a fantastically powerful and useful condensation of earlier social knowledge.

Supervenience and reductionism … [Harris still sounds “greedy” reductive to me, can’t tell with Metzinger yet … seems he’s not.] … Integrated Information ? [Mentioned but not discussed further.]

Sense of self – and how “illusory” is it … this is distinctive Metzinger question.

Anti-reductionist perspective (*) – top-down – to focus on subjective intuition and experience. But meaningless to call self illusory, it IS our subjective perspective. It’s conceptual, not physically real, we will never find “it”. (Zen Buddhist) [Apart from encouraging us not to focus on self, I can’t really get what Metzinger is particularly saying about “no self”. Defining self is not an important part of the problem. Self is not an issue, unless we let it get in the way. (I already get this?)] Beyond “armchair” thought experiments – proper ego-dissolution with Buddhist practice with or without the aid of psychedelics.

Metzinger’s – Self Model Theory of Subjectivity (Section H2 – there is no “self” but we do have a self-model as part of how we experience the world.) [Simplicity is a Metzinger driver – See his Edge Question response.] Self as “attention”? Embodied and/or disembodied experience through ego-dissolution / mindfulness practices.

[(*) Does Metzinger also have a bottom-up view?] All about phenomenology of experience – no neuroscience at all yet? There IS a “sense-of-self” – we know because the control case is that we can dissolve it and experience the difference. No explanations of “how” from the physical and biological?

Ah “affordances” – [see Dennett’s most recent Edge response]. It’s all about our model of the world – we see “things” even tangible physical things, in terms of what they “can do” in the world. An affordance landscape – a model of the world of possibilities relative to ourselves. [Agreed]

[Peak and Flow experiences. Ramchandran and Sacks stories.] Product of evolution – therefore good and bad – physical and cultural – evolutionary optimisation is not “in our best interest” necessarily. [See Sabine’s 2017 Edge response] eg Eastern experience of freedoms not necessarily good, despite enlightened Eastern consciousness. Good life. Honesty in rationality. Buddhism good without its religious doctrines.

[This is all non-contentious to me. Not seeing anything novel?]

Introspective neglect maybe [the unexamined mind]? What about normal people and/or intellectual athletes? [This is a dig at Dennett – unnamed – he’s never gonna live-down that misunderstood remark – See Dennett and the Little People]. It’s mostly about training and habit, not simply innate potential “competence”.

AI debate has become stale already. Agreed! Kitzinger’s novelty is Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN) – really a thought experiment on epistemic authority in ethics of AI – a best possible case, where AI knows best (see optimisation above). Point being even this is a danger to humans. We have an “existence” bias, an AI needn’t. This is Buddhist / suffering / after-life parable. [Don’t actually believe much of the thought-experiment reasoning – as I say Kitzinger is politically motivated – but it’s a thought. It’s possible to believe in significance of life, but not be in denial of death. The rationality of (deluded) religious dogma is spurious here, surely?]

Progress cannot depend on rational argument – much secular atheist pro-science humanism is embarrassingly superficial and not in our interest. We need a secularised virtual tradition and values, we should not be ridiculing religious traditions. Harris says / agrees (!) – [Harris fans take note.]

[Summary – Lots of interesting ground covered, too much, too superficially, to be coherent in one conversation. Only a couple of thoughts new to me. Some strongly reinforced. Real novelty is the continuing story of Harris education – and his actual learning. Real novelty and real value is the dialogue space. Fascinating. [Dialogue > Find agreement > Plan next dialogue. Neither debate nor logical argument. Critical thinking need not be about finding fault with the arguments of others.]

Also published on Medium.

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