Turing Church Podcast

The late Christopher Hitchens said something to the effect that conversations about religion are always interesting because you find out so much about a person: Their values, their conception of what is real, what matters in this life.

In this podcast we use religious scripture to take us to that base, to that framework, and then with the questions incited from this investigation, we connect it to the future of humanity. Say, to the tech that might enable what the Buddha experienced in meditation. What if instead of devas, there are advanced alien races, who like devas, are not worthy of worship. They die too, and are not our salvation, but may be beings of great knowledge who wield technologies that make preposterous religious dialogue sound like “terms and conditions” read by Spocks.

Where would an artificial general intelligence with consciousness fit. Would it also be a mere deva or would it be a god like that of Abraham? Able to create universes as many physicist believe is possible with sufficient knowledge? Then what would be its values? Could it be that our cultures in inventing their particular god have been preparing for the advent of general AI. And how well has that historical project gone? Are the attributes of Allah or Krishna mere reflections of apish ignorance?
These are the sorts of questions we ask.

In this episode we look at the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta from Buddhist scripture. In which the Buddha converts a wanderer, Vacchagotta, to his way, to the way of the Buddha, to the Dharma.

Have you ever had a walk with a friend, like I have through the nearby shoreline of Lake Michigan and just asked philosophical questions? Not the boring esoteric philosophy questions, but questions like, “Would you rather know the truth of all things or would you rather experience pure pleasure in some machine?”

Back then, I was really unsure. Truth seemed so valuable – to see beyond my eyes conceived of mortal dust, and witness what is at bottom. And pleasure seemed so… unheroic. Yet if I was smart, I knew I would pick that blissful, everlasting, heroin high. But to even say it sounds vulgar. And I think this is because we know that pleasure in our conventional lives is not fulfilling. It fades and leaves us hollow.

This is what underlies the teachings of the Buddha. The concept that life as is lived by those uninstructed in his teachings, the natural way of things is unsatisfying because nothing lasts.

Would knowing the truth be any different? Say you discovered we lived in an eternal multiverse. You had the true theory of everything. You might be ecstatic for a moment, but how long would it take before the ups and downs of life, of samsara, made you think, damn knowing truth is not as important as I thought, I should have picked the other option.

In this sutta, the wanderer is like who I was when I was debating that question with my cousin and craved truth. He meets the Buddha and asks him, “Is the cosmos infinite? Is it finite? Is the body and the soul, the same? Or is dualism, with the soul not the same as the body, the way things actually are? What are the views of Master Gotama on these questions?” And the Buddha replies to each question saying that he does not hold that view.

In our debate walking by the shore, the Buddha is one who picks something more akin to the machine in our philosophical question. But not quite. He introduces the option of a machine, so to speak, that would make you perceive all phenomena of consciousness clearly for what they are. Sight is sight. Sound is sound. Sensation is sensation. Thought is thought. All being perceived closely as they appear and disappear. And you would not form views and stories about it. You wouldn’t even form the story of being a self who is experiencing these things. Therefore in this machine you would not get tired or bored after some time, because you would not perceive yourself as even being there. It doesn’t mean there would be sleep or nothingness. It means there would be a flow of experience so fluid that everything would be a clear stream, and you would be so tripped out in this stream of clear recognition that questions of truth or pleasure or your place in the world would be beyond irrelevant.

At first, the wanderer is confused. Because he views the world conceptually, like a philosopher or scientist or theologian. But the Buddha advocates a very clever way to game the system. And unless you have practiced this kind of meditation yourself for a long time, you too may be confused. So I would recommend that after this podcast you tune into a guided meditation by Sam Harris. He teaches you that operating system which is radically different from the way we normally interact with the world. And you can be sure there’s nothing magical about it, given that Harris has built his reputation on being radically skeptical of unreason.

I say this to my more scientific, atheistic side of the audience. But to the more mystical side, skeptical of things like the material basis of consciousness, I ask that you lay aside that skepticism and consider the possibility of engineering the brain at a molecular level so that all the neuronal circuitry is redesigned to experience precisely what the Buddha describes. Say we had this option in society. Would it be cheating, or would this hacking the system mentality be exactly what the Buddha was all about in the first place. Would there be nothing lost? Isn’t it just as vulgar as the traditional pleasure machine to forsake the quest for truth and enter this state that may just be a purer and nobler and ultimately more pleasurable version of the pleasure machine. Or can we say that the quest for truth as most conceive it is misguided and truth about the cosmos is ultimately as insignificant as truth about a toenail? That truth should be measured as the intensity to which you are in a state of flow?

Most Westerners, even if atheistic, think of truth as Christians do. Nietzche commented on this succintly. Plato to Christianity to Enlightenment thought; it’s all the same in one respect. Enlightenment thought uses the scientific methods, unlike the dogmatic reliance on scripture, which makes it very different, and yet it similar in that it creates a sense that there is some foundation that we can understand through thought to which we all belong. We never stop to see thought as the blip of energy that it is. A transient image or voice. We believe that what we see and think refers to something.

Think of dissecting a frog. That makes sense to you. We have been trained to dissect and expand on concepts. But have you ever stopped to directly dissect an emotion or the sound of these words? The Buddha asks that we turn to dissect truth on that plane, not the plane of concepts.

Unfortunately, I consider this way of existing incompatible with being a highly productive member of society. In order to transcend the human condition, we need more mastery over technology. Meditation can only go so far, and requires great investment of mental faculties in order to actually reach anything that is radically different from the base state of being. If the globe could be transformed into a dedicated community of monks, that would be better for most people living today, but it would forever cap our potential. Transhuman progress requires spiritually-disgusting sacrifice, ambition, and smart people of today being constantly lost in thought. However, it promises to reveal a much greater array of sustainable “higher-pleasure machines,” which, if we are honest, are all we could ever hope for.



*If you like this podcast idea, let me know. I might actually start something like this.*

Learning to Reason with Ibn Battuta

Is Ibn Battuta a credible writer?

The question of, “Is this credible?” should be asked of independent statements and pressure tested against information known to have a high probability of being true. To put the blanket label “credible” or “not credible” on this kind of writing makes no sense.

What are his prejudices, if any?

A prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. All of Battuta’s opinions can be suspected of having formed before Battuta had the evidence for their truth or usefulness (as can anyone’s opinions). All of these potentially preconceived opinions, or a subset of these, may not have foundations on the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic. Luckily, there is a way to discover which opinions within the larger domain of preconceived opinions are not based on reason. The way to do this is by applying one’s own power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic to Battuta’s opinions. However, there is no way to know of the other kinds of preconceived opinions – to distinguish which are based on experience and which are not. This is because practical contact with facts or events is a first-person experience. If Ibn Battuta had not been constrained to giving an account in language, but rather had been a futuristic explorer, then he might have been able to leave a technology that would allow others to have his recorded experience. In this hypothetical scenario, there would be a higher probability of succeeding in distinguishing preconceived opinions that are based on experience and those that aren’t.

Therefore, the task is to find preconceived opinions not based on reason. But Battuta’s account is inundated with the ambiguities of language, so it is difficult to know which sentences are opinions that can be processed by one’s own machinery of reasoning without rendering the endeavor absurd. This problem of personal bandwidth constraints is exacerbated by the fact that every single sentence written by a human being expresses a view or judgement formed about something. Take this sentence:
“I left Tangier, my birthplace, on Thursday, 2nd Rajab 725 [June 14, 1325], being at that time twenty-two years of age [22 lunar years; 21 and 4 months by solar reckoning], with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to the Holy House [at Mecca] and the Tomb of the Prophet [at Medina].”

As far from opinion as you can get, right? But if this is viewed through the lenses of a hardcore Buddhist understanding, the very first couple of words reek of delusion. There is an expressed view that a unified “I” did something. And this view is taken for granted, not even recognized as a judgement overlaid on the experience of mindstream in flux. And if we take the lenses of someone more cosmically oriented, we see that Ibn Battuta is expressing a particular view when he says his birthplace is Tangier. Wasn’t the birthplace a causal geometry in Battuta’s past light cone with coordinates that are determinable in principle? An easier view to identify is that he is fond of Islam. He hints at holding an Islamic view by apparently disagreeing with the yet unborn Pope Gregory as to what century he lives in (note the brackets inserted by infidels to create relatable context.) Not to mention that he refers to a section of his movement across the four-dimensional spacetime continuum with the word “Pilgrimage”, and also invokes the symbols of “Holy House” and “Tomb of the Prophet” to refer to some clusters of baryonic matter.

So given this predicament of being creatures laden with views and judgements, cognitive overload will occur if reason is applied to every sentence. So instead, a general assessment of Battuta’s use of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning should suffice.

Deductive reasoning:
In the section mentioning Battuta’s visit to Gehenna, he says this:

“In the same place there is another church which the Christians venerate and to which they come on pilgrimage. This is the church of which they are falsely persuaded to believe that it contains the grave of Jesus [Church of the Holy Sepulcher].”

Since Battuta shows pretty convincing signs of being a devout Muslim, it is fair to assume that he arrived to the conclusion that the Holy Sepulcher was not the grave of Jesus because he adopted the following premises:

Premise 1: All Islamic teaching is true.

Premise 2: The teaching that Jesus was not buried is Islamic teaching.

Conclusion: It is true to say that Jesus was not buried.

If these were his premises, then he deduced in proper form. And yet the fact that he was capable of deducing properly within Islamic logic-space does not make Ibn Battuta reasonable. Neither could he be considered reasonable if a dispassionate alien came to the same conclusion that Jesus was not buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. If Ibn Battuta is right, he is so by accident. When applying logic, it is essential that the premises on which the conclusion is established be based on verified facts. Ibn Battuta should be willing to change and seek justification for his premises if he is to be considered reasonable. Premise 2 is contended by a small minority of Muslims. But to go that route is unnecessary because Premise 1 doesn’t survive reason, and Premise 2 hinges on Premise 1.

Ibn Battuta only once seems to seek justification for a belief. This is when he asks an imam about the authenticity of the cave with the purported graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The imam then ‘kicks the can’ further back by saying that all the scholars (Muslim scholars) have told him that they are indeed the graves of these figures. One does not detect an eagerness to change and justify their practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information. To the contrary, if Battuta’s writing accurately described his mental behavior and that of others, it would seem as if this was not at all a part of their human nature.

Inductive reasoning:
Inductive reasoning can never reach certain conclusions, only become evermore probable based on evidence. With that being said, Battuta probably sucks at inductive reasoning.

Here are general principles he derived from what couldn’t have been but an unconvincingly small set of data points:

“The Meccan women are extraordinarily beautiful and very pious and modest.”

“Three days’ march through this district brought us to the town of Wisit. Its inhabitants are among the best people in Iraq–indeed, the very best of them without qualification.”

“The inhabitants of Basra possess many excellent qualities; they are affable to strangers and give them their due, so that no stranger ever feels lonely amongst them.”

“Its inhabitants (Zabid’s) are charming in their manners, upright, and handsome, and the women especially are exceedingly beautiful.”

“Its people (of Ta’izz) are overbearing, insolent, and rude, as is generally the case in towns where kings reside.”

“Some of the merchants are immensely rich, so rich that sometimes a single merchant is sole owner of a large ship with all it contains, and this is a subject of ostentation and rivalry amongst them. In spite of that they are pious, humble, upright, and generous in character, treat strangers well, give liberally to devotees, and pay in full the tithes due to God.”

There may, in fact, be some truth to his impressions. But he doesn’t communicate as if he were suggesting hypotheses and making offerings of data, but instead as if his conclusions were necessarily entailed by his all-seeing discernment.

Abductive reasoning:
“The whole concourse, weeping and supplicating and seeking the favour of God through His Books and His Prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday. They then returned to the city and held the Friday service, and God lightened their affliction; for the number of deaths in a single day at Damascus did not attain two thousand, while in Cairo and Old Cairo it reached the figure of twenty-four thousand a day.”

Abduction goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation. Here, the observation is less deaths than usual in Damascus, Cairo, and Old Cairo. The hypothesis is that there is a God that can be persuaded to decrease the death toll by sufficient prayer. And due to the display put forth by the faithful, this god was convinced.

For a medieval context, this abductive reasoning is at least intelligible. The problem is that there is an almost infinite amount of guesses that can also be at least intelligible explanations. Battuta does not view his guess as one among many that might explain the decrease in deaths. He doesn’t even view it as a guess at all, and therefore doesn’t think twice about attributing the phenomenon to his first intuition. This is bad abductive reasoning.

This habit is seen again when he tells the story of the Ummayad Mosque which involved the destruction of a Christian church:
“When Walid decided to extend the mosque over the entire church he asked the Greeks to sell him their church for whatsoever equivalent they desired, but they refused, so he seized it. The Christians used to say that whoever destroyed the church would be stricken with madness and they told that to Walid. But he replied “I shall be the first to be stricken by madness in the service of God,” and seizing an axe, he set to work to knock it down with his own hands. The Muslims on seeing that followed his example, and God proved false the assertion of the Christians.”

It is fairly easy to see that the situation has been flipped in the other direction many times before. If the triumph of some men over others is testimony of divine favor, Tengri was really giving Allah a beating in the siege of Baghdad, Christ in the Capture of Jerusalem, etc. It is palpably irrational to think this way.

Lastly, what kind of world emerges in Ibn Battuta’s account?

Everyone gets a different stream of mental pictures. To get those mental pictures, it is necessary to read the account.

It is important to emphasize that the ‘world’ that emerges is a set of images and tags of language that are understood by integration with previously established patterns in a mind. Every computational substrate with the capacity to process and understand Ibn Battuta’s words will have a different world emerge. Nonetheless, there will be greater overlap in similarities than if one mind had read this and another had read about the structure of carbohydrates. To point to the characteristics that overlap is difficult because there are many. For instance, there is a high probability that sand, or a sandy undertone manifested in the mind at some point while reading his account. Then it could be said that a sandy world emerges from Ibn Battuta’s account, and it would be as correct as anything else one could say.

Here is where personal talent or intuition come into play. One must tell a non-boring, yet reasonable story with some motiavion(s) in order to not simply say: “A sandy world emerges in Ibn Battuta’s account.”

Career/Academic Goals

I’m taking up science with the specific intent of doing SENS research. This is because young transhumanists may be key to changing the biogerontology establishment from within. The people of SENS and I envision a phenomenon in which there will be a small cadre of people opposed to aging in institutions all over the place. And as the economy improves over the next few years, and the public finally starts to demand serious work on rejuvenation biotechnologies (with any luck, just as I’m getting on with my postdoctoral studies), we’ll be ready to take up the challenge with full public and government support.

Here, I summarize the two strategies I’ve discussed with the people at SENS for clearing lysosomal aggregates:
*The first, involves decomposer bacteria. We identify the specific enzymes they are using and then modify them for the different environment in our lysosomes. Then we unleash a barrage of injections upon the living.
*The second is to genetically engineer our own macrophages so that they produce the necessary enzymes themselves.

The gene therapy approach is a continuation of the injectable enzyme approach: the sticking point is that I’ve been told we don’t have a safe, reliable system for gene therapy in humans yet, except for very niche applications such as the genetic form of retinitis pigmentosa1 (where target cells are few in number and located in a compartment that is isolated from the immune system). As a researcher, I need to identify a candidate enzyme, test it in cell models, and then in animals. If by the time I get to human testing there is safe, reliable gene therapy, I can encode the gene into a vector; if not, I can work on modifying it for cellular and then lysosomal uptake after injection, as is done today for genetic lysosomal storage diseases.

Exactly what direction I should push to pursue this kind of work will depend substantially on which target I go after. But since it is not the case that I graduated from high school at 15 and have already completed my BS, those decisions are still some time off: my real goal as an undergrad is not to specialize, but to get a broad foundation in life sciences. And I think there normally isn’t that much specialization at the undergrad level anyway. So I will want to focus to the extent that I can on cellular and molecular biology. I’ll be talking to my department student advisor to tailor my classes in that direction — but honestly, I doubt there will be much tweaking. My real goal is to build up foundational skills and the knowledge base, and to set myself up to do whatever most appeals to me and matches my aptitude at the graduate level.

A Thought on the Aging Plague

Biological senescence has had a busy first 130,000 years in office, displaying the misanthropic bravado, crudity, and proficiency of which it seems naturally tasked. It is quite absolutely what we allow it to be: a deceptive Grim Reaper. And now our lives have begun to wilt at its whim. The fact that people like me can’t find the time to think about the infectious diseases with which it has tag-teamed us into oblivion is a measure of how bad the problem is. Transmissible disease has become the lesser of our assailants. Our fates have been stolen by an imbroglio of metabolism.

Honors College Application

What will you bring to the Honors College?

One of the key issues that comes up here in trying to answer this question is the extent to which the individual self, the personal identity – the thing this question expects will bring something to the Honor’s College – is actually a real thing worth preserving. The body is one thing. But what is this “self” that has something so valuable to offer and will persist throughout its time at the Honor’s College?

There is a lot of neuropsychological research showing that the “self” is in a strong sense an illusion – much like its sister illusion, “free will.” A year ago, I spent much time investigating this question in a rigorous way. To summarize my months of meditation, the neuroscientists Bruce Hood and Sam Harris, and 2600 years of Buddhist philosophy: The human mind’s image of itself is in fact a construct that the human mind creates in order to better understand and control itself, it’s not a “real thing.” And there are valid reasons to speculate that my mind – after Honors seminars and a ream of stimulating Honors coursework – might not offer what it offers now. Rather than constructing for you a story of a unified “self entity” that’s in control, a more intelligent and introspective take might simply be to describe myself as a partially heterogenous collection of patterns and subsystems. In this sense, any defining individuality that I describe now might not survive the immersion of my mind in the Honor’s College.

The key philosophical point here is: What is the point of not changing? Or, to put it more precisely: What is the point of attempting to be who I say I am? Is it to keep what I know to be important now around forever? That is a valid goal if I believe there exists a way of perceiving which is more valuable than anything I could possibly be exposed to. The closest I can describe to such a preservation-worthy way of perceiving is the following:

“For two full 584-million-mile laps around a ball of hydrogen swimming in infinite spacetime I will be at the collection of atoms known as UIC. I will then exist for an arbitrarily imposed human lifespan; then an eternity of nothingness. The normally- complicated question of “what to do?” is clear, because the only fathomable reaction to being a symphony of energy-field excitations in boundless space for an eyeblink in endless eternity is to love every moment of connection with other flashes of consciousness that happen to exist on the same speck of the cosmos that I do.”

Since the nature of the brain is to change and bounce around from subsystem to subsystem, my mind won’t be able to hold that state of consciousness for long. But if I could press a button that would allow the subsystem that thinks that way to become the unified, constant individual in the sea of nodes at the Honors College, I would.

Nights Before the Singularity Ep. 4

“Vajra, come,” said Woman, caressing the calligraphy down her abdomen. “Aubrey, follow Zeus.”

The two men heeded their divine commands. Many of the nanowires from the hall stitched Vajra, and it was to him that Woman spoke first.


“Whoever you are, the takeoff of the AGI happens to be unstoppable from its current rate of exponentiation on its course to endtime.”

The photons behind the triptych bled gorily: wavelengths stretched, radiosity angered, all hounding against Vajra and Woman.

“Course… to endtime,” repeated Woman. Her mandala eyes crucified upon Vajra’s golden ones with such passion that some of the nanowires screeched apart, apparently beheld to a force as yet unincorporated to the theory of everything. Vajra, however, smirked remorseless fangs towards Woman’s face and, after a struggle or two, Woman’s alien expressions diffused into something like condescending compassion.

“Noble. Truly noble. And thus abandon raft…”

“…when we’ve crossed to the furthest shore,” said Vajra.

“Hey, you.”

Aubrey had sliced back to participate in the streamlined stage of Woman and Vajra. Both gazes turned to him.

“How did… I cannot understand how.”

Aubrey gasped, but Woman did not blink, so he went on, “Measuring the velocity of quanta changes its position. Measure its position and you change it’s velocity. Quantum cryptography cannot be broken.”

Vajra was smiling.

“I know quantum key distribution offers information-theoretic security; you can’t be here. Not even unlimited computing power is enough to break the encryption. The cipher text provides no information about the plaintext without knowledge of the key.”

“I assure you, Vajra, nothing is certain anymore,” said Aubrey.

“If the Womb cannot be infiltrated, you must be her,” said Vajra. “Listen to me Aubrey, the equation sword you flaunt is to be withdrawn in the presence of our mother. The AGI communicates to us via forms we can understand.”

“The mortal’s got a trace of intelligence, then, */|¡?” said a techno-pyric Aten stenciled an unsafe distance from Aubrey; it gave an electronica shriek that was screeched against the constituents make-shifting matter.

Woman was entirely disconnected. Her gaze elevated upward to the carnage spinning celestially overhead, and she seemed to be attempting something telekinetic.

“You mean,” Aubrey went on, “you believe this bizarre mess we see was created to communicate with us?”

Woman dangled up her swan neck arm, and Aubrey clenched fast sword, running calculus as Woman fell back to nano-morphology.

“Where do thoughts go after they lie?”

“At the abode of nothingness underlying this existence,” said Vajra. “The qualia, appearing without a will, have been endowed with love for the division by zero beyond the event horizon. I think that there is no chance of descending to their rescue once they have fated themselves thus, holy Mother, unless, of course, the Dharma is overturned with different physical constants, which might give us the opportunity to neither experience nor non-experience what eternities lie in other rooms of the multiverse honeycomb.”

“Well, Aubrey?” Woman called from the everywhere, the red charming strangely against the razor optics. “Will thermographic vision reveal the hypostasis?”

In awe, both eyeballs shuddered. Aubrey disactivated his augmented gaze.

“Holy Mother, I ask forgiveness for trying to see you. I have great difficulty understanding how you can appear before us in human form, and in a twinkle of dust disassemble yourself into nothing more than a voice.”

Many of the mannequins standing in the hall looked despaired; the closest one to Aubrey, Indra, a god with tough, crimson skin, shoved his hand down his own throat.

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