Luke Muehlhauser at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute:
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.