Finding Work That You Love

Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, argued that we should do the work we love. Here is an excerpt of his main idea:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle…

In the past few days I have encountered four separate articles concerning the question of whether one should (only) do the work they love. Each piece had Jobs’ claims in mind.

In “A Life Beyond Do What You Love,” philosophy professor Gordon Marino argues that doing what we don’t want to do—doing our duty—is more noble and ethical than just doing what we love. He doesn’t take kindly to the physician who quit his practice to skateboard all day. In, “In the Name of Love,”  the historian Miya Tokumitsu says that the “do what you love” ethos is elitist and degrades work not done from personal passion. It neglects that work may develop our talents, be part of our duty, or be necessary for our survival. The socio-economic elite advance the do what you love view, forgetting their lives dependonn others doing supposedly less meaningful work. In, “Never Settle is a Brag,”  the economist and futurist Robin Hanson critiques Jobs’ advice that we shouldn’t settle for unfulfilling work. If everyone followed Jobs’ counsel a lot of needed work would go undone. Note too that the advice works best for the talented, so by advising others to not settle for anything less than work they love, you signal your status. You are bragging. Finally in “Is Do What You Love Elitist?” philosophical blogger Mark Linsenmayer recognizes the flaws in Jobs’ prescriptions but finds in them an obvious truth too—the good life requires that we not be wage slaves in a market economic system. Thus we should change the system so that work can be more satisfying.  

I agree with Marino that doing our duty, even if it doesn’t make us happy, is admirable. And I agree with Tokumitsu and Hanson that elitists, who often do the most interesting work, fail to value more mundane work. But I think that Linsenmayer makes the most important point. We need a new economic system—one where we can develop our talents and actualize our potential. Most of us are too good for the work we do, not because we are better than others, but because the work available in our current system is not good enough for any of us—it is often not satisfying. (I have written about this previously.) As Marx wrote almost two hundred years ago, most of us are alienated from the work we do, and thus ultimately alienated from ourselves and other people too.

Still we do not live in an ideal world. So what practical counsel do we give people, in our current time and place, regarding work? Unfortunately my advice is dull and unremarkable, like so much of the available work. For now the best recommendation is something like: do the least objectionable/most satisfying work available given your options. That we can’t say more reveals the gap between the real and the ideal, which is itself symptomatic of a flawed society. Perhaps working to change the world so that people can engage in satisfying work is the most meaningful work of all.

The Impossibility of Mind Uploading


My most recent post, “Living in a Computer Simulation,” elicited some insightful comments from a reader skeptical of the possibility of mind uploading. Here is his argument with my own brief response to it below.

My comment concerns a reductive physicalist theory of the mind, which is the view that all mental states and properties of the mind will eventually be explained by scientific accounts of physiological processes and states … Basically, my argument is that for this view of the mind, mind uploading into a computer is completely impractical due to accumulation of errors.

In order to replicate the functioning of a “specific” human mind within a computer, one needs to replicate the functioning of all parts of that specific brain within the computer. [In fact, the whole human body needs to be represented because the mind is a product of all sensations of all parts of the body coalescing within the brain. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just consider replicating only the brain.] In order to represent a specific human brain in the computer, each neuron in the brain would need a digital or analog representation, instantiated in hardware, software or a combination of the two. Unless this representation is an exact biological copy (clone), it will have some inherent “error” associated with it. So, let’s do a sort of “error analysis” (admittedly non-rigorous).

Suppose that the initial conditions of the mind being uploaded are implanted in the computer with no errors (which is highly unlikely in its own right). When the computer executes its simulation, it starts with that initial condition and then “marches in time”. The action potential duration for a single firing of a neuron is on the order of one millisecond, which implies that the computer time step would need to be no larger than that (and probably much smaller or else additional computational errors are induced). So the computer would be recalculating the state of the brain at least 1,000 times per second as it marches in time (and probably more like 10,000 times per second).

Since the computer representation of the brain is not perfect, errors will accumulate. For example, suppose that the computer representation of one neuron was only 90% accurate. After that neuron “fired”, its interaction with connected neurons would have roughly a 10% error. Now consider that the human brain has roughly 86 billion neurons, each with multiple connections to other neurons. The computer does not know which of those 86 billion neurons are needed at each time step, so all would need to be included in each calculation. One can see that 10% errors in the functioning of individual neurons within the millisecond duration will quickly accumulate to produce a completely erroneous representation of the functioning of the brain a short time after the computer started its simulation. The resulting “mind” that gets created in that computer would probably bear no similarity to the original human mind (or to probably any “human” mind). It would probably be “fuzzy” and unable to function.

Would 99% accuracy in the representation of a neuron be any better? Not really. 99.9% accuracy? Still no good. 86 billion neurons is a large number (and remember, the computer is recalculating the entire brain state 1,000 to 10,000 times per second). In order for accumulated errors to not overwhelm the simulation of the brain in the computer, the accuracy in representing each neuron would need to be extremely high and the amount of information needing to be stored for each of the 86 billion neurons would be huge, leading to an impractical data storage and retrieval problem. The only practical “computer” would be a biological clone, which is not the topic here.

Consequently, if one believes in a reductive physicalist theory of the mind, then uploading the specific mind of an individual human into a computer is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.

My Response 

Let me say briefly that I wouldn’t call mind uploading impossible, as many experts (Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, Randal A. Koene, Nick Bostrom, Michio Kaku, and others) attest to its possibility. And even skeptics like Kenneth Miller don’t reject the idea in principle. My view is that, with enough time for future innovation, something like it is almost inevitable. Of course we may not have that time.

Living In A Computer Simulation

Many scientists believe that we will soon be able to preserve our consciousness indefinitely. There are a number of scenarios by which this might be accomplished, but so-called mind uploading is one of the most prominent. Mind uploading refers to a hypothetical process of copying the contents of a consciousness from a brain to a computational device. This could be done by copying and transferring these contents into a computer, or by piecemeal replacement with parts of the brain gradually replaced by hardware. Either way, consciousness would no longer be running on a biological brain.

I am in no position to judge the feasibility of mind uploading; experts have both praised and pilloried its viability. Nor can I judge what it would be like to live in a virtual reality, given that I don’t even know what it’s like to be a dog or another person. And I don’t know if I would have subjective experiences inside a computer, in fact, we don’t know how the brain gives rise to subjective experiences. So I certainly don’t know what it would be like to exist as a simulated mind inside a computer or a robotic body. What I do know is that the Oxford philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom has argued that there is a good chance that we live in a simulation now. And if he’s right, then you are having subjective experiences inside a computer simulation as you read this.

But does it make sense to think a mind program could run on something other than a brain? Isn’t subjective consciousness rooted in the biological brain? Yes, for the moment our mental software runs on the brain’s hardware. But there is no necessary reason that this has to be the case. If I told you a hundred years ago that some integrated silicon circuits will come to play chess better than grandmasters, model future climate change, recognize faces and voices, and solve famous mathematical problems, you would be astonished. Today you might reply, “but computers still can’t feel emotions or taste a strawberry.” And you are right they can’t—for now. But what about a thousand years from now? What about ten thousand or a million years from now? Do you really think that in a million years the best minds will run on carbon-based brains?

If you still find it astounding that minds could run on silicon chips, consider how absolutely remarkable it is that our minds run on meat! Imagine beings from another planet with cybernetic brains discovering that human brains are made of meat. That we are conscious and communicate by means of our meat brains. They would be amazed. They would find this as implausible as many of us do the idea that minds could run on silicon.

The key to understanding how mental software can run on non-biological hardware is to think of mental states not in terms of physical implementation but in terms of functions. Consider for example that one of the functions of the pancreas is to produce insulin which maintains the balance of sugar and salt in the body. It is easy to see that something else could perform this function, say a mechanical or silicon pancreas. Or consider an hourglass or an atomic clock. The function of both is to keep time yet they do this quite differently.

Analogously, if mental states are identified by their functional role then they too could be realized on other substrates, as long as the system performs the appropriate functions. In fact, once you have jettisoned the idea that your mind is a ghostly soul or a mysterious, impenetrable, non-physical substance, it is relatively easy to see that your mind program could run on something besides a brain. It is certainly easy enough to imagine self-conscious computers or intelligent aliens whose minds run on something other than biological brains. Now there’s no way for us to know what it would be like to exist without a brain and body, but there’s no convincing reason to think one couldn’t have subjective experiences without physicality. Perhaps our experiences would be even richer without a brain and body.

We have so far ignored important philosophical questions like whether the consciousness transferred is you or just a copy of you. But I doubt that such existential worries will stop people from using technology to preserve their consciousness when oblivion is the alternative. We are changing every moment and few worry that we are only a copy of ourselves from ten years ago. We wake up every day as little more than a copy of what we were yesterday and few fret about that.

Perhaps an even more pressing concern is what one does inside a simulated reality for an indefinitely long time. This is the question recently raised by the Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano. He argues that the question is not whether we will be able to upload our brains into a computer—he says we will—but what will we do afterward.

I suppose that some may get bored with eons of time and prefer annihilation. Some would get bored with the heaven they say they desire. Some are bored now. So who wants to extend their consciousness so that they can love better and know more? Who wants to live long enough to have experiences that surpass our current ones in unimaginable ways? The answer is … many of us do. Many of us aren’t bored so easily. And if we get bored we can always delete the program.

Is Evolution True? Yes, and the World is Round Too

“As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.” ~ William James

I rarely reply to a comment of a previous post. But to clarify the position of a previous post, I’ll reply to this one.

In view of the fact that you mention the germ theory of disease, its interesting to note that Ernst Boris Chain the co-winner of the Nobel prize for his work in refining and perfecting penicillin, which has probably saved over 200 million lives, believed in God and thought Darwinism was no more than a fairy tale.

The reader is correct that there are theistic scientists, a self-evident claim that no rational person would deny. In fact, this blog and my recent book document that 7% of the members of the national academy of science members are theists. Of course the evidence also meticulously shows that religious belief declines with educational attainment, among other factors. Now, this doesn’t mean that religious belief is false, but it does suggest that religion is not best defended by appealing to the frequency of religious belief among scientists, for religious belief among that cohort is considerably less than in virtually any other group. Other arguments are better suited to a defense of religion.

As for the fact that an individual scientist rejects the near-unanimous opinion of other scientists, this is hardly surprising. There are hundreds of thousands of scientists in USA—more than ten million if you count all those employed with science and engineering degrees—so it is easy to find outliers. You can find a (very) few scientists who believe in Bigfoot or alien abductions too. That doesn’t change the fact that evolution has the same scientific status as the theory of gravity or the atom, a claim easily verified at the National Academy of Science website or any of hundreds of legitimate scientific websites listed below.

The consensus of belief in biological evolution is based on the overwhelming evidence from multiple sciences including: physics, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, population biology, ornithology, herpetology, paleontology, geology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, population ecology, anthropology and more. Anyone who tells you they don’t believe in evolution is either lying or scientifically illiterate. There is no other possibility. Remember that when you get a flu shot each year or finish your antibiotics, you’re implicitly accepting evolution—viruses and bacteria evolve quickly.

Still, it is possible that the outliers are correct. Maybe what goes up doesn’t come back down, perhaps the earth is flat or things don’t change over time—perhaps the gods deceive us about all of this to test our faith. But I wouldn’t bet on it! Finding outliers is simple confirmation bias—finding cases to confirm what one already believes.

Yet I have no illusions that anything I say will change people’s mind. I learned long ago that people don’t want to know, they want to believe. Interestingly, credulity itself has evolutionary origins. We are wired to believe what our parents tell us—it helped us survive—hence we often believe in adulthood what we were told when we were young.

For those interested in the truth about the fact of evolution you can visit any of these links.

I’m sure you could find many others … if you are really interested in the truth.

Ignoring Politics

The political situation in the US is so depressing I often have to focus on something else. Were I to absorb all the dishonesty, hypocrisy, ignorance and cruelty that permeates the current administration and the Republican party … I would be consumed in misery. Were I to swallow all the psychic waste they flush into the world whenever they speak and act, my being would be contaminated. And that helps no one.

So I shop for groceries, exercise and enjoy my family. I’m more of a spectator than a participant in politics. I do what I can; I try to inform people on my blog. But an individual’s efforts are minuscule in the big scheme of things.

And I really don’t see the political situation ending well—the civil war will increase and may lead to substantial violence. The fascism I warned of is here. (Still, by many measures, the world is better than ever: see for example Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

But there are so many existential risks that past progress may not be predictive of the future. I’m not sure we’ll survive the Anthropocene. I’m not sure we’ll survive Trump. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

And now I’m going for a walk during which I’ll meditate on Descartes 3rd maxim:

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with.

But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.

For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

From Rene Descartes The Discourse of Method, Chapter 3