Somebody think of the electrons!

Atlas 6Brian Tomasik has a fascinating essay: Is there suffering in fundamental physics?

He admits from the start that “Any sufficiently advanced consequentialism is indistinguishable from its own parody.” And it would be easy to dismiss this as taking compassion way too far: not just caring about plants or rocks, but the possible suffering of electrons and positrons.

I think he has enough arguments to show that the idea is not entirely crazy: we do not understand the ontology of phenomenal experience well enough that we can easily rule out small systems having states, panpsychism is a view held by some rational people, it seems a priori unlikely that there is some mid-sized systems that have all the value in the universe rather than the largest or the smallest scale, we have strong biases towards our kind of system, and information physics might actually link consciousness with physics.

None of these are great arguments, but there are many of them. And the total number of atoms or particles is huge: even assigning a tiny fraction of human moral consideration to them or a tiny probability of them mattering morally will create a large expected moral value. The smallness of moral consideration or the probability needs to be far outside our normal reasoning comfort zone: if you assign a probability lower than 10^{-10^{56}} to a possibility you need amazingly strong reasons given normal human epistemic uncertainty.

I suspect most readers will regard this outside their “ultraviolett cutoff” for strange theories: just as physicists successfully invented/discovered a quantum cutoff to solve the ultraviolet catastrophe, most people have a limit where things are too silly or strange to count. Exactly how to draw it rationally (rather than just base it on conformism or surface characteristics) is a hard problem when choosing between the near infinity of odd but barely possible theories.

What is the mass of the question mark?One useful heuristic is to check whether the opposite theory is equally likely or important: in that case they balance each other (yes, the world could be destroyed by me dropping a pen – but it could also be destroyed by not dropping it). In this case giving greater weight to suffering than neutral states breaks the symmetry: we ought to investigate this possibility since the theory that there is no moral considerability in elementary physics implies no particular value is gained from discovering this fact, while the suffering theory implies it may matter a lot if we found out (and could do something about it). The heuristic is limited but at least a start.

Another way of getting a cutoff for theories of suffering is of course to argue that there must be a lower limit of the system that can have suffering (this is after all how physics very successfully solved the classical UV catastrophe). This gets tricky when we try to apply it to insects, small brains, or other information processing systems. But in physics there might be a better argument: if suffering happens on the elementary particle level, it is going to be quantum suffering. There would be literal superpositions of suffering/non-suffering of the same system. Normal suffering is classical: either it exists or not to some experiencing system, and hence there either is or isn’t a moral obligation to do something. It is not obvious how to evaluate quantum suffering. Maybe we ought to perform a quantum-action that moves the wavefunction to a pure non-suffering state (a bit like quantum game theory: just as game theory might have ties to morality, quantum game theory might link to quantum morality), but this is constrained by the tough limits in quantum mechanics on what can be sensed and done. Quantum suffering might simply be something different from suffering, just as quantum states do not have classical counterparts. Hence our classical moral obligations do not relate to it.

But who knows how molecules feel?

8 thoughts on “Somebody think of the electrons!

  1. Thanks for the post! It seems plausible to me that a superposition of suffering with a neutral experience is still net bad and hence should be avoided. A superposition of suffering with a corresponding amount of happiness is less clear (although negative-leaning or prioritarian intuitions might still regard it as somewhat net bad). Either way, if we can change systems to have less suffering and more happiness instead, this seems like a clear win.

    1. I agree that tilting things towards less suffering is likely good, but I wonder about just how different quantum suffering could be. Especially since it could have phase, which is totally nonclassical.

      One could envision this as the Bloch sphere, with pure classical pain or happiness as the poles, and weird superposed states in between. This is different from a probabilistic mixture, where there is some probability the system is in different states. Since one can make different pure states that mix into physically indistinguishable mixtures yet have different distributions on the Bloch sphere, I suspect quantum suffering/happiness might have weird internal degrees of freedom that doesn’t look meaningful to us, yet might have just as much importance to quantum systems as our suffering/happiness axis.

      Hmm, maybe one approach is to explore what a “suffering observable” would do to these systems. Presumably valid suffering/happiness states are eigenstates of this observable if it exists. And the big question is what it would commute with. One cool aspect of quantum mechanics is that it actually constrains what systems can do to great degree.

    2. Creating the capacity for suffering costs energy, doesn’t it? This cost would have to be offset by increased stability in the system that’s expanding the energy on this capability?

      For organisms with the ability to act on their environment, suffering is basically the stick that their selfish genes use to force them to avoid behaviours which reduce the likelihood of their genetic replication.

      How could the capacity of an atom to suffer increase the likelihood of its replication (and thus persistence of that trait)?

      We’ve seen that suffering is not a requirement for living things. It can be eliminated through biochemical or electrical manipulation of the brain. So if it’s presence is not absolutely required in organisms that benefit from it, what would be the impetus for pain arising in systems that do not even derive stability from it?

      1. While I agree that suffering most likely is an evolved ability that requires particular, fairly complex nervous systems (or something equivalent), it is not 100% clear that the phenomenological *state* of suffering requires a nervous system. It could be that something like panpsychism is true and the intrinsically bad qualia of suffering that gets used in nervous systems also exist in particles. Not likely, certainly, but it still seems to be a mere possibility.

        If suffering actually requires a dissipative evolutionary explanation we could still get it in surprising places: bacteria certainly have simple avoidance reactions and can do some information processing using biochemical reaction networks. But at least suffering would be confined to evolved systems (plus equivalent systems created through rare random accidents and designed systems).

  2. Perhaps you’re simply being insufficiently creative in coming up with “opposite” theories.
    In addition to Brian’s suggestion above that electrons might enjoy their time here, have you considered that perhaps electrons deserve their suffering, and thus it is a positive good? That could even explain the matter-antimatter imbalance, perhaps positrons are better . . . entities? . . . and thus don’t get sent to the universe to suffer. 🙂

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