Scott Aaronson is an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. Before that, he did a PhD in computer science at UC Berkeley, as well as postdocs at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on the capabilities and limits of quantum computers, and more generally on the connections between computational complexity and physics. Aaronson is known for his blog as well as for founding the Complexity Zoo (an online encyclopedia of complexity classes); he’s also written about quantum computing for Scientific American and the New York Times. His first book, Quantum Computing Since Democritus, was published this year by Cambridge University Press. He’s received the Alan T. Waterman Award, the PECASE Award, and MIT’s Junior Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Luke Muehlhauser: Though you’re best known for your work in theoretical computer science, you’ve also produced some pretty interesting philosophical work, e.g. in Quantum Computing Since Democritus, “Why Philosophers Should Care About Computational Complexity,” and “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine.” You also taught a fall 2011 MIT class on Philosophy and Theoretical Computer Science.
Why are you so interested in philosophy? And what is the social value of philosophy, from your perspective?
Scott Aaronson: I’ve always been reflexively drawn to the biggest, most general questions that it seemed possible to ask. You know, like are we living in a computer simulation? if not, could we upload our consciousnesses into one? are there discrete “pixels” of spacetime? why does it seem impossible to change the past? could there be different laws of physics where 2+2 equaled 5? are there objective facts about morality? what does it mean to be rational? is there an explanation for why I’m alive right now, rather than some other time? What are explanations, anyway? In fact, what really perplexes me is when I meet a smart, inquisitive person—let’s say a mathematician or scientist—who claims NOT to be obsessed with these huge issues! I suspect many MIRI readers might feel drawn to such questions the same way I am, in which case there’s no need to belabor the point.
From my perspective, then, the best way to frame the question is not: “why be interested in philosophy?” Rather it’s: “why be interested in anything else?”
But I think the latter question has an excellent answer. A crucial thing humans learned, starting around Galileo’s time, is that even if you’re interested in the biggest questions, usually the only way to make progress on them is to pick off smaller subquestions: ideally, subquestions that you can attack using math, empirical observation, or both. For again and again, you find that the subquestions aren’t nearly as small as they originally looked! Much like with zooming in to the Mandelbrot set, each subquestion has its own twists and tendrils that could occupy you for a lifetime, and each one gives you a new perspective on the big questions. And best of all, you can actually answer a few of the subquestions, and be the first person to do so: you can permanently move the needle of human knowledge, even if only by a minuscule amount. As I once put it, progress in math and science — think of natural selection, Godel’s and Turing’s theorems, relativity and quantum mechanics — has repeatedly altered the terms of philosophical discussion, as philosophical discussion itself has rarely altered them! (Of course, this is completely leaving aside math and science’s “fringe benefit” of enabling our technological civilization, which is not chickenfeed either.)
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