The simple harmonic oscillator (SHO), the Schwarzschild solution black hole (SS-BH), the hydrogen atom: These are simple, basic physics systems, well defined, ideal, symmetric models, and indispensable for the progress of physical science. Brain and consciousness studies are, via physics being fundamentally epistemology of conscious observers, closely related or perhaps even sub-fields of physics. They use certain simple systems like the simplest integrate and fire neuron for example, the feedback loop. All are theoretical models yet as well correspond very closely to physical realizations.
We cannot satisfactorily “explain” phenomenal feeling in any ‘mechanistic’ way. We get hung up with regress, with whether real suffering is suffering of suffering. However, we can create physical systems that we correlate suffering with (see below) and will likely be able to do so unknowingly soon. If you care about ethics and want to fight today’s as well as prevent future speciesism, it should be a duty to demand and work toward a widely acceptable clarification of these issues.
Philosophical debate leads nowhere if it is not goal oriented. Making something focuses best – nothing verification transcendent ever pops up in stuff you can sell. We need to construct/define and investigate the properties of the Simplest Sufferer (SS).
We make Suffering Systems
A mechanical arm is wired up to retract if touching a hot surface. It is connected to a light that turns from green to red when retracting. This system is not correlated with suffering, because we can wire it to push further instead of retracting or to let a different color appear, all without changing the wiring inside of what we may arbitrarily identify as its brain. All its “suffering” rests entirely in our interpretation; none is necessarily ascribed to the system, thought of as somehow internal to the system that we think “counts”.
(Warning: If you cannot stand thought experiments involving chainsaws, daughters, and perverted sexual fetishes without grasping a rosary, this article may soon offend you. I recommend enjoying being offended, and then enjoy questioning why it offended you. You are welcome.)
However, we can make systems that we do correlate internal suffering with, ascribe internal suffering to. For example, you can take a human sperm cell and an egg, implant them perhaps into a primate womb, say kept in a vat, say a woman, and so on, all physical steps manipulating matter, ending up with a "cute little baby", a system that can be made to make sounds like “mama” while it looks like as if it smiles – you may insist it really smiles. You can put this system into a soundproof container that has medical equipment supplying fluids containing nutrients and oxygen and so on, and hook baby up to electrical wires. You can attach a green lamp as well as a red one, and a sensor that detects screaming and crying inside, distinguishing it from giggling. And now you can wire it all up so that pressing a switch will make the red light come on.
This is a physical system, and you can hang it on a Christmas tree and wire it up so that it flashes its beautiful red light whenever people gather around and sing a Christmas carol to go to heaven. You can wire it up to your blog and let people donate money to charity, keeping that webcam on the red light indicating that donations are arriving until the red light burns out.
Artificial intelligence (AI) implemented on physical computers that partially interconnect with biological neural tissue is progressing in leaps and bounds. We wire it up to look cute to make us feel well, but we should think about which kinds of systems suffer! How do we know that not that green light on your iphone or Siri saying “How are you” is equivalent to a hundred Christmas carols sung around my special tree?
We need to seriously think about constructing the Simplest Sufferer, the simplest system which we consent to correlate suffering with. We need to make it and will make it, although some teenagers perhaps ten years down the road will download the subroutines for fun and make them scream an internal scream so painful as has never been felt before in this universe.
What are the vital differences between flailing mechanical arms and a tortured child? One difference is that a system that we correlate suffering with has an internal representation of the environment and of parts of itself (though most “parts of self” are just parts of the environment of the “brain” – this is why philosophy about (personal) identity is relevant). A physical re-re-presentation is no more privileged than the original physical pattern. The mere electrical signals that transport pain are in a sense already a representation. Nobody has argued satisfactorily for that data compression (coarse graining via cognitive selection processes) during a transformation (here re-presentation) correlates to suffering. There must be something, some X added to the mere representation (regardless whether static pattern or process, the latter being a pattern in space-time). One popular suggestion is to focus on recursion, because such is not already in the initial physical situation or in any mere re-presentation. Recursive would be the mentioned representation of parts of the system itself or a representation of the suffering itself.
The bare system is already present in the original physical situation, so a representation of “I” may not be as vital as often supposed. “I” can be dissolved via hallucinogens while suffering stays. Suffering may require an internal representation that includes a sort of ‘neural correlate’ of the suffering itself without this being a mere regress error.
How to Proceed
One should think closely along a physical implementation, about actually making a system that suffers. We need the equivalent of an arm that can go forth or retract (A = 0 or 1), an output like “red”and “green”, and a brain where such variables have representations (say via neurons being in different states). The task is: Add to this internal representation, namely via additional outside variables (e.g. seeing the red output) as well as inside variables (e.g. re-representation of combined representations). In the beginning it will be quite obvious that the internal representation is isomorphic to computations that perform entirely different tasks. Initially, merely swapping red with green will prove that.
The difficult task is to add to the internal representations, to the language of thought perhaps (LOT), though I can suffer without logical thoughts. We need to add to the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) in such a way as to ensure an internal “wiring” that creates interdependence between parts on the re-presentation level that cannot be mapped one to one to something entirely different. If you reject such as silly and impossible, you basically are of the opinion that one may go ahead and physically torture a child – there is no suffering related with it according to your opinion.
A Quantum Connection?
We will have a hard time to construct the Simplest Sufferer. We may never all agree on that a particular thing must be related to suffering. As soon as somebody suggests one, we will make it, see the neurons flashing, and feel that this could as well be a randomly thrown together decoration of a Christmas tree. The Simplest Sufferer may crucially involve entanglement with other potential representations. The entanglement between potential actualizations is the core of quantum mechanics.
The suffering system is perhaps in many worlds in a vital way. It is that interdependence between potential worlds which we cannot artificially construct simply by wiring up a (simple) representation. The representation must act and thus itself “enter” parallel worlds in order for phenomenal suffering to supervene on the entanglement of the worlds it finds itself in. A quantum connection, yes, but not necessarily in a way that can just be switched on via adding a few quantum gates into the physical representation (although I neither reject this ingredient as perhaps also necessary out of hand).
In the quantum solipsism description, the child suffers because you are in the superposition of all these possibilities. The part of you that observes to make the child suffer is the flipside of the part of you that is the child.
If you find these thoughts outrageous, stop the moral outrage and start constructing the Simplest Sufferer so that I will be proven wrong. If we cannot construct the Simplest Sufferer, the psychopaths will have had it all along.
RemarksWhy not "simplest enjoyer" instead of simplest sufferer? Because joy is a form of suffering; suffering via pain is easier to consider; and the project can be supported via arguing ethical necessity. We cannot add or subtract from totality. Avoidance of suffering is what you want to read; I find myself having obeyed and written this.