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Reality is weirdly normal

33 Post author: RobbBB 25 August 2013 07:29PM

Related to: When Anthropomorphism Became Stupid, Reductionism, How to Convince Me That 2 + 2 = 3

"Reality is normal." That is: Surprise, confusion, and mystery are features of maps, not of territories. If you would think like reality, cultivate outrage at yourself for failing to intuit the data, not resentment at the data for being counter-intuitive.

"Not one unusual thing has ever happened." That is: Ours is a tight-knit and monochrome country. The cosmos is simple, tidy, lawful. "[T]here is no surprise from a causal viewpoint — no disruption of the physical order of the universe."

"It all adds up to normality." That is: Whatever is true of fundamental reality does not exist in a separate universe from our everyday activities. It composes those activities. The perfected description of our universe must in principle allow us to reproduce the appearances we started with.

These maxims are remedies to magical mereology, anthropocentrism, and all manner of philosophical panic. But reading too much (or too little) into them can lead seekers from the Path. For instance, they may be wrongly taken to mean that the world is obliged to validate our initial impressions or our untrained intuitions. As a further corrective, I suggest: Reality is weirdly normal. It's "normal" in odd ways, by strange means, in surprising senses.

At the risk of vivisecting poetry, and maybe of stating the obvious, I'll point out that the maxims mean different things by "normal". In the first two, what's "normal" or "usual" is the universe taken on its own terms — the cosmos as it sees itself, or as an ideally calibrated demon would see it. In the third maxim, what's "normal" is the universe humanity perceives — though this still doesn't identify normality with what's believed or expected. Actually, it will take some philosophical work to articulate just what Egan's "normality" should amount to. I'll start with Copernicanism and reductionism, and then I'll revisit that question.

 


Everything is usual. Very nearly nothing is familiar.

  • Spell 1: Since the beginning, not one unusual thing has ever happened. And intelligence explosion sounds... well, 'unusual' is the mildest word that comes to mind. So it won't happen.
  • Counterspell: Reality is weirdly normal. It's not the kind of normal that sounds normal.

Relative to the universe's laws, everything is par for the course. But relative to human standards of normality — what I'll call the familiar — barely anything that actually exists is par for the course. Nearly all events are senseless, bizarre, inhuman. But that's because our mapping hardware is adapted to a very specific environment; if anything's objectively weird, it's we, not the other denizens of Everythingland. That's much of why absurdity is a poor guide to probability.

Egan's Law reminds us that beneath our human surface weirdness lies a deeper regularity, a deeper unity with the rest of Nature. But to call this alien order 'regular' already assumes a shift in perspective from what a person off the street would initially think of as 'regular', to the hidden patterns of the very large and very small. We should prize the ability to shift between these points of view, while carefully avoiding conflating them.

 

  • Spell 2: Reality is normal. So it shouldn't be difficult for me to think like it.
  • Counterspell: What's normal from a God's-eye view is wont to be weird from a human's. And vice versa.

Thinking like reality requires understanding reality. You can't just will yourself into becoming a high-fidelity map. If nothing else, you'll be too vulnerable to knowledge gapsPretending you think like quantum physics is even worse than rebelling against the physics for being too confusing. At least in the latter case you've noticed the disparity between your map and the territory.

To take pride in one's confusion at the quantum, rather than striving mightily to understand, is an epistemic sin. But to deny one's confusion at the quantum, to push it from one's mind and play-act at wisdom, is a graver sin. The goal isn't to do away with one's confusion; it's to do away with one's best reasons to be confused.


 


What adds up to the familiar needn't be familiar.

  • Spell 3: It all adds up to normality. But relativity sure sounds abnormal! So relativity will be replaced by something normaler.
  • Counterspell: Physics is the weird addenda, not the normal sum.

x + y + z + ... = Normality. But x ≠ Normality. Nor does y. In fact, even the complete quantum-mechanical description of the human world would not look normal, from a human perspective. But it would be a description of exactly the world we live in.

This is another reminder that surprise is a feature of maps, not of territories. Very different maps — a wave function scribbled in silicon, a belief, a gesture, a child's drawing — can represent the same territory. The drawing is normal (familiar), and the wave function isn't. But the referent of the two maps may well be the same. In asserting "quantum mechanics adds up to normality", we're really asserting that our maps of familiar objects, to the extent they're accurate, would co-refer with portions of the maps of an ideal Finished Science. They're two different languages, but faithful translation is possible.

 

  • Spell 4: It all adds up to normality. So I should be able to readily intuit how QM yields the familiar.
  • Counterspell: Reality forms what's normal, but by weird means.

The relationship between the quantum and the familiar can be thoroughly unfamiliar. The way in which the unintuitive fundamental truths yield an intuitive Middle World is not itself intuitive.

We could call this "emergence", if we wished to craft a territory predicate out of mapstuff. Otherwise, I suggest calling this predicate"wow-sometimes-I'm-not-very-good-at-keeping-track-of-lots-of-small-things-ence". Understanding the logical or mathematical implications of simple patterns is not humanity's specialty. Causal and part-whole relations are no exception to this rule.


 


It all adds up to the phenomenon.

  • Spell 5: It all adds up to normality. It's common sense that time 'flows'. So science will ultimately show time is not at all like space.
  • Counterspell: We'd find even the familiar alien, if we but understood it.

Normality isn't common sense. Normality isn't our beliefs, expectations, assumptions, or strongest convictions. Normality, in the sense relevant to a true and binding "It all adds up to normality", is the phenomenon, the human world as it appears. (Not the human world as it is believed to appear. The human world as we actually encounter it.)

What's "the phenomenon"?

I'm going to be willfully cagey about that. What I really mean by "the phenomenon" is "whatever's going on". Or whatever's going on that we're cognitively accessing or representing. It needn't all add up to a world that makes my map true; but it will add up to a world that explains why my map looks the way it does.

Even saying that much risks overly restricting the shape explanations are allowed to take. Egan's Law can be used as a general constraint on successful explanations — they must account for the explanandum — but only if we treat the explanandum loosely enough to permit dissolutions and eliminations alongside run-of-the-mill reductions. It all adds up to an explanation of how our beliefs arose, though not necessarily a validation of them.

 

  • Spell 6: It all adds up to normality. I have an immediate epistemic acquaintance with the irreducible phenomenal character of my experience. So, whatever be the final theory, it will certainly include qualia.
  • Counterspell: Every map is in a territory. But no meta-map is beyond suspicion.

It's obvious that appearances can deceive us about underlying reality. But a variety of perceptual illusions demonstrate that experiences can also consistently mislead us about themselves. It all adds up to normality, but normality lies.

In some cases, we can't accurately describe our surface impressions until we've understood their underlying mechanism. Since so much of science is revisionary, we mustn't interpret Egan's Law in a way that unduly privileges first-pass descriptions. When data and theory conflict, it's sometimes more likely that the data has been misrepresented than that the theory is false.

How far does this openness to map revision extend? As far as the dynamics of one's brain allows. From the sidelines, it may appear to me that in principle a thinker should be able to have certainty about some propositions — for instance, 'an experience is occurring'. But when I actually find myself living through such a thought, I don't in fact experience infinite confidence. It remains physically possible for me to be persuaded otherwise.

This point ought to be a bit controversial, and more defense of it is needed. But I do insist on treating 'phenomenal experience' and 'phenomenon' as prima facie independent concepts. Egan's Law really is the law, whereas claims about some inerrant mode of reasoning or perception will at best qualify as well-supported hypotheses.


 

Egan's Law is not about saving conscious experience, or our theories, or our axioms, or our interpretations or descriptions of the phenomenon. It's about saving the phenomenon itself — the piece of the world in which we are, in fact, submerged. Egan's Law can be restated: The part of reality that (under its familiar description) puzzled or surprised us is identical to (or otherwise lawfully derivable from) the part of reality that (under its more fundamental description) explains it.

The human piece of the universe is of a piece with everything else. And the Everything Else gets explanatory priority. Of all our science's findings to date, that may well be the most startling.

Comments (81)

Comment author: Vaniver 25 August 2013 07:00:39PM *  15 points [-]

Short version: the issue with "reality is normal" is that the English statement looks bidirectional when the concept is actually unidirectional assignment. That is, a CS way of stating it would be:

normal := reality

This is, as you say, the solution to a lot of philosophical panic. The reverse statement

reality := normal (wrong!)

leads to a lot of confusion, and it's unfortunate that "reality is normal" doesn't exclude that interpretation, because this can lead to the double illusion of transparency. It looks to me like this post is valuable because it highlights that risk and tries to counteract it.

I'm not sure that your attempt to counteract it is very effective, though. When I first read the phrase "reality is weirdly normal," I thought you had totally missed the point. To quote from Think Like Reality:

Whenever I hear someone describe quantum physics as "weird" - whenever I hear someone bewailing the mysterious effects of observation on the observed, or the bizarre existence of nonlocal correlations, or the incredible impossibility of knowing position and momentum at the same time - then I think to myself: This person will never understand physics no matter how many books they read.

Perhaps "reality is unintuitively normal" is closer to what you were trying to say- but again the issue is that you want reality to be intuitively normal. That's what it means to understand that part of reality. For humans, it takes work to align your intuition with reality but it can be done, and so something like:

reality := unintuitive (wrong!)

seems like it actively disallows that possibility (and tries to have the map influence the territory).

In the third maxim, what's "normal" is the universe as humanity sees it — though this still doesn't identify normality with what's believed or expected.

I'm not sure I agree with this interpretation. To go with the wiki's explanation:

The purpose of a theory is to add up to observed reality, rather than something else.

If by "as humanity sees it" you mean "observed reality," okay, but "as humanity sees it" seems very prone to the other interpretations you want to exclude. "Observed reality" seems to exclude them, and also to concord nicely with the demonic view.

I think the rest of the post does a good job of highlighting and dispelling various confusions one could have about this concept, and I think banishing confusions is a very important part of education and communication.

Comment author: RobbBB 25 August 2013 07:21:40PM *  5 points [-]

I like your analogy!

There are multiple independent insights I'm trying to communicate in this post, so I don't expect to be able to express it all in the title. I do want a title that's relevant and memorable (to help chunk the information here), eye-catching (so people read it), and simple (so people who like non-technical stuff read it), and that doesn't worsen the problem. I went with 'Reality is weirdly normal' because I figured the paradoxical appearance would make it harder to come up with a harmful pet interpretation, forcing readers to use my detailed explanations to generate reasonable semantic values for the title. Feel free to suggest other title options; I may well change it.

If by "as humanity sees it" you mean "observed reality," okay

Yeah, that phrasing is definitely less confusing. I prefer it, but in context it doesn't clearly contrast with the divine or demonic observation I use for the other sense of 'normal'. How about "as humanity perceives it" in place of "as humanity sees it"? It's still not 100% transparent, but it at least is less idiomatically tied to belief.

Comment author: pragmatist 25 August 2013 04:29:55PM 9 points [-]

Very nice! You should move this to Main.

Comment author: RobbBB 25 August 2013 04:51:59PM 4 points [-]

OK!

Comment author: abramdemski 25 August 2013 09:34:58PM *  8 points [-]

I'd like to point out the parallel to the existentialist concept of "absurdity". From Wikipedia:

It is illogical to seek purpose or meaning in an uncaring world without purpose or meaning, or to accumulate excessive wealth in the face of certain death. Absurdity is used in existentialist and related philosophy to describe absurdly pointless efforts to try to find such meaning or purpose in an objective and uncaring world, a philosophy known as absurdism.

To draw out the connection: rather than saying "reality is weirdly normal", I would say: Reality is absurd in human terms. Physics does not care about you. 'Every action has an equal and opposite reaction' is not a principle of justice; it has only to do with kinetic motion. Conservation of energy does not entail survival after death. The universe is allowed to kill you. Physics will happily twist everything you find meaningful beyond recognition (including you yourself).

This has a depressing aspect which is not present in the post. Perhaps that is the largest flaw of existentialism. However, I think this concept of absurdity is valuable. "Absurd" takes things one step further than "weird", in a way I feel clarifies things.

Reality is absurdly normal.

=Edit=

The ensuing discussin has made me change my mind. The concept of the absurd is not an improvement here. Insisting that reality is absurd in human terms (strongly violating our intuitions and also our values) is not helpful; it's relevantly similar to insisting that life is a mystery or that quantum mechanics is impossible to understand.

Comment author: RobbBB 25 August 2013 11:02:54PM *  10 points [-]

Sartre is my prototype for 'existentialist' (and he was the first person to adopt the term), so I'm usually talking about his philosophy when I say 'existentialism'. Camus' philosophy is the thing I'd label 'absurdism'. The two thought they had different philosophies, though I think they mainly disagreed on emphasis and tone rather than substance. I've seen it put best:

  • "Sartre: life is meaningless, SO HUMANS CREATE MEANING.
  • "Camus: LIFE IS MEANINGLESS, so humans create meaning."

Camus is also frequently mopey and mournful about the fact that we live in a godless, purposeless universe. Sartre is positively gleeful and exultant about it. (Though, admittedly, glee and exultation can look pretty scholastic and grim when you funnel it through Sartre's authorial demeanor.) So I think of absurdism as the brand of existentialism that emphasizes our tragic helplessness to escape our world's absurdity (the Droopy Dog Method for overcoming nihilism), while Sartrean existentialism emphasizes the mad power and freedom that comes with atheism (the Calvinball Method for overcoming nihilism). I believe Sartre avoids the flaw Eliezer's pointing at. (Though he suffers from plenty of other flaws.)

Comment author: Brillyant 26 August 2013 12:55:07AM 1 point [-]

Perhaps it is a slight digression, but I don't see Sartre and Camus as two sides of the existential coin. I believe Camus concludes the Myth of Sisyphus with the hero happy, and concluding all is well, despite the absurdity of reality. I don't get "Droopy Dog" from Camus.

...

I really like your first sentence...

"Reality is normal." That is: Surprise, confusion, and mystery are features of maps, not of territories. If you would think like reality, cultivate outrage at yourself for failing to intuit the data, not resentment at the data for being counter-intuitive.

In my head (and in the context of Camus's absurdism) it reads like this:

"Reality is normal, though it may appear at times to be perfectly absurd. That is, absurdity, and all that it entails, is a feature of how we may come to view the map, not a characteristic of the territory itself. To win, spend your life experiencing & studying the territory, as well as working on how to draw a better (more accurate) map; don't waste resources pouting about the 'way the territory is'...just keeping living & studying & improving that map."

Anyhow, interesting post. Much to consider.

Comment author: RobbBB 26 August 2013 01:28:49AM *  0 points [-]

I don't see Sartre and Camus as two sides of the existential coin. I believe Camus concludes the Myth of Sisyphus with the hero happy, and concluding all is well, despite the absurdity of reality. I don't get "Droopy Dog" from Camus.

This is a key reason I see Sartre and Camus as substantively in agreement, and disagreeing just in tone and emphasis; Camus' insistence that in spite of all he's said Sisyphus must somehow be happy, aligns him with Sartre's view that human value can emerge even in nightmarish circumstances, via individuals' attitudes toward their circumstances. Sisyphus' sudden and inexplicable turn-around is the moment in the Droopy Dog cartoons when the narrative arc is suddenly broken and Droopy smashes everyone in sight, bringing things back into order by deus ex animale. (In contrast, Sartre tries to give explicit arguments for why Sisyphus' position is a superior one.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2013 09:46:02PM 4 points [-]

I would indeed call this the largest flaw of existentialism. For one thing, reality would probably seem a lot less existential!absurd in a happy intergalactic civilization, also permitted by physics.

Comment author: BrienneYudkowsky 26 August 2013 03:41:04AM 5 points [-]

Robby's totally right with respect to Sartre. And a statement that doesn't hold for Sartre doesn't firmly stand as a statement about existentialism, I think; he's too central. Virtually everything I've read of Sartre's engenders a triumphant resolution to create the world I want to live in, and a sense that doing so is my personal responsibility. His philosophy is not all ponies and rainbows, because it's sometimes extremely frightening, but it's the opposite of depressing.

Comment author: RobbBB 26 August 2013 03:36:06PM *  6 points [-]

I'm not sure exactly when existentialism's image switched over from Sartre's 'fuck yeah, life is meaningless! let's do all the things!' to 'alas, life is meaningless! we are all sad and alone in the cosmos and stuff.' I guess Camus happened. Plus Sartre is really terrible at PR.

Comment author: Locaha 26 August 2013 07:02:37AM 0 points [-]

reality would probably seem a lot less existential!absurd in a happy intergalactic civilization, also permitted by physics.

Nope. If the Big Rip doesn't do you in, the Heat Death of the universe will. Enjoy billions of years contemplating your inevitable demise.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 August 2013 09:27:00AM *  11 points [-]

Enjoy billions of years contemplating your inevitable demise.

Or, enjoy several weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as you train yourself out of pointless rumination followed by billions of years enjoying utopia. The universe having a trait that is not preferred does not thereby obligate you to be overwhelmed by angst.

Comment author: Locaha 26 August 2013 11:36:54AM 0 points [-]

Or, enjoy several weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as you train yourself out of pointless rumination followed by billions of years enjoying utopia

Can I do it now and enjoy my remaining lifespan? And if so, do I really need intergalactic civilization?

Comment author: wedrifid 26 August 2013 12:03:17PM 5 points [-]

Can I do it now and enjoy my remaining lifespan?

Yes. By all means.

And if so, do I really need intergalactic civilization?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy isn't a cure for death. Yes, the intergalactic civilisation and the accompanying technology sounds rather important.

Comment author: Locaha 26 August 2013 12:36:59PM 0 points [-]

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy isn't a cure for death. Yes, the intergalactic civilisation and the accompanying technology sounds rather important.

Intergalactic civilization isn't a cure for death, either.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 August 2013 12:44:58PM 4 points [-]

The simplistic view is that 50 years of life is, all else being equal, less desirable than 50 billion years of life. As it happens 50 billion years of life is actually better than 50 years of similar quality life. This isn't a complicated or deep issue.

Comment author: Locaha 26 August 2013 01:51:01PM 0 points [-]

The simplistic view is that 50 years of life is, all else being equal, less desirable than 50 billion years of life.

This isn't what I'm arguing against here. Of course 50 billion years is better, ceteris paribus.

50 billion years still remain absurdly small compared to eternity.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 August 2013 02:39:19PM 8 points [-]

This isn't what I'm arguing against here. Of course 50 billion years is better, ceteris paribus.

What I am arguing against are these particular comments.

If the clever rhetorical questions you ask are rhetorically wrong then they remain wrong even if you have some good point that you want to ultimately support. I know this is a peculiar cultural norm to go by but it's a valuable one.

50 billion years still remain absurdly small compared to eternity.

Quite a lot smaller, yes.

The interesting question to ask here is what chance of eternal life we would be willing to exchange for a given 1% chance of 50 billion years of life in terms of hypothetical decision making. For instance someone who valued years of life linearly would, given the chance, dedicate the cosmic commons to computronium dedicated to optimistic matrix hacking even if almost completely certain there is no escape possible. I don't value life years linearly and I'm quite sure that there are finite numbers of life years that I would prefer over chances of eternal life but I don't know quite what the equivalence function looks like.

Comment author: Kindly 26 August 2013 01:16:55PM 6 points [-]

I'd like to take a million years or two to fully study the issue before I accept that my demise is inevitable.

Comment author: lukstafi 26 August 2013 10:10:44AM 0 points [-]

I would still be curious how much I can get out of life in billions of years.

Comment author: Locaha 26 August 2013 11:03:27AM *  -1 points [-]

You are curious now. You might become less curious after the first billion years. :-)

PS. I'm not advocating deathism. Just saying that any period of time is insignificant, when compared to a much larger period of time. The billion-year happy intergalactic civilization is still absurdly tiny compared to the eternity of Boltzmann-brain-infested Darkness that follows...

PPS. Or we could just taboo the word "absurd".

Comment author: lukstafi 26 August 2013 11:06:41AM *  0 points [-]

As a function of how long the universe will exist? ETA: a short period of time might be significantly located.

Comment author: Locaha 26 August 2013 11:35:01AM 0 points [-]

As a function of how long the universe will exist?

This reminds of a website where you can check if the Earth has been destroyed.

Comment author: sanxiyn 28 August 2013 11:38:32AM 3 points [-]
Comment author: DSimon 29 August 2013 01:04:05PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Locaha 28 August 2013 12:13:36PM 1 point [-]

Thanks. Now we need one to check the existence of the entire universe. Of course, the site will have to be hosted off-universe.

Comment author: lukstafi 26 August 2013 10:42:15AM *  0 points [-]

The absurd claim is "there is nothing you ought to do or ought to not do". The claim "life is tough" is not absurd. ETA: existentialism in the absurdist flavor (as opposed to for example the Christian flavor) is a form of value anti-realism which is not nihilism. It denies that there are values that could guide choices, but puts intrinsic value into making choices.

Comment author: notsonewuser 25 August 2013 04:04:18PM *  2 points [-]

Dude, this post is amazing (though I could probably articulate (or resolve in the process) a few quibbles I have with it, if I had time for that)! You should seriously consider rewriting some of Eliezer's stuff.

I noticed that "reality is normal" and "reality is weirdly normal" both commit the mind projection fallacy. However, this is OK (though probably not optimal) if the reader has a technical understanding of what you mean (which is more likely to be true for someone who is reading this than for someone who is not).

That being said, I have a challenge for you. Since I think that this exposition is better than Eliezer's, I challenge you to rewrite this post without any direct dependencies on his work (of course, you will have to formally cite any pages of his whose ideas you consult). Write it so that a competent person who has never heard of Less Wrong could understand it in as close to a technical way as is possible with as abstract a concept as this (and you've inspired me to try the same!).

I can feel the void.

Comment author: RobbBB 25 August 2013 04:50:12PM 7 points [-]

Thanks, notsonewuser! Do tell me some of your quibbles if you have time.

Perhaps I'll add a cautionary link to the Mind Projection Fallacy where I explicitly allude to this -- "the cosmos as it sees itself".

I like your challenge a lot! I'll rewrite this for a more general audience and post it to my blog. Possibly as two separate posts, the first introducing 'Reality is normal' and the unusualness koan, the second discussing Egan's Law. I'll try to remove 'dependencies' in the sense of prerequisites for comprehension, but I don't think I'll try to remove the large number of intellectual connections to what Eliezer's written. What Eliezer's written is too useful, and part of my reason to make this more accessible is so new people will check out the Sequence posts I link.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 26 August 2013 11:22:27PM *  1 point [-]

Since the beginning, not one unusual thing has ever happened. ... Relative to the universe's laws, everything is par for the course. But relative to human standards of normality — what I'll call the familiar — barely anything that actually exists is par for the course. ... That's much of why absurdity is a poor guide to probability.

That sounds to me like, "Some events appear improbable to us, but nothing that actually occurs was improbable." That might be correct in some multiverse universes, but is trivially and dramatically false in non-multiverse universes. Some people argue that the impact of highly-improbable events dominates over the impact of common, highly-probable events.

You need to distinguish between surprise about events, and surprise about models. Egan's law should only cover surprise about your models. I can be surprised that you won the lottery without needing to change my models.

Comment author: RobbBB 27 August 2013 03:52:27AM *  0 points [-]

I'm glad you raised this issue, because I don't think it's a simple task to unpack 'not one unusual thing has ever happened' in a way that is neither trivial nor false. (It's also quite difficult to do this with Egan's Law.)

A trivial reading of the usualness koan: 'Since the beginning, nothing that never happens has ever happened.' (Here 'unusual' means 'violating a Law of Nature, in the sense of violating a true generalization about the universe'.)

A false reading of the usualness koan: 'Since the beginning, nothing that infrequently happens has ever happened.'

A non-trivial and true reading will be somewhat sophisticated, and will (I think) narrow down what sort of universe we live in a lot more than 'reality is normal' or Egan's Law do. What the koan means is that we live in a cosmos whose structure and dynamics are determined by

  1. a short list of
  2. simple
  3. exceptionless rules
  4. that are uniform across space and time
  5. and deterministic. (Or, more strongly, locally deterministic, allowing one to use spacetime regions to predict the properties of their neighbors.)

A universe in which (cosmically) "unusual" things sometimes happen would be one where the rules vary substantially across spacetime regions, where things sometimes happen for no reason (indeterminism), or where the universal rules are extremely convoluted and gerrymandered.

Interestingly, there is one candidate event for a cosmically unusual thing that happened in our own universe. To our knowledge, only one unusual thing has ever happened — at t=0, a state of low entropy occurred. But since then, every spacetime region has followed the same rules as every other spacetime region. Knowing that our universe is lawful, and knowing everything about any two contiguous spacetime regions, would together (I think) allow one to immediately infer the causal dynamics of all other spacetime regions in the observable universe.

Comment author: shminux 27 August 2013 07:35:47PM 0 points [-]

Uh, most of these are demonstrably false, so the koan does not seem overly useful.

  1. The list of rules has been growing awfully quick, and there is no guarantee that it is finite. Here is the latest list of the basic rules, already quite compressed. And it does not even describe any macroscopic phenomena, which have their own rules, some more ad hoc than others. Thus there is no indication that "the territory" can be fully described by a map with "a short list of simple rules", though some subsets of it certainly can.

  2. If you think that the above is simple, I shudder to think what you consider complex.

  3. "exceptionless rules" is either vacuous or false. We observe plenty of phenomena we don't know the rules for. If the koan means that "but the rules are still there even for these exceptions, we just don't have them on the map yet", this meta-model seems to contradict 1.

  4. Uniformity across space and time does seem to apply, roughly, to the observed universe, but plenty of models in the modern high-energy physics suggest that the laws and values we observe and deduce might be an accident of some local false vacuum state, or just one of many options in the chaotically inflating multiverse.

  5. Local determinism is only saved in QM by postulating that "everything possible happens, even if we can never observe it", and even this locality is severely challenged by the EPR/Bell. Even if "the cosmos" were deterministic, it is still not necessarily predictable, both due to chaotic effects and due to potential inherent Knightean uncertainty related to the uninteracted parts of the Big Bang.

Anyway, I agree that the "weird rules" are there first to explain the (weird and non-weird) observations, but I disagree with the narrow interpretation in the wiki

The purpose of a theory is to add up to observed reality, rather than something else

The purpose of the rules is actually to change reality, at least as we perceive it. While we are not (yet) able to change some "fundamental" laws, we certainly affect reality by learning (and changing) some of the others.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 28 August 2013 07:23:01AM 2 points [-]

The lagrangian in that PDF is about three transformations away from the most compact specification of the SM, which would be "the most general renormalizable field theory with these local symmetries and with fermions transforming in these representations". If you then wrote down the lagrangian immediately implied by that specification, then changed field variables to incorporate the effects of the Higgs, and finally chose a gauge and included "ghost" fields, then you could get that long expression.

Comment author: RobbBB 27 August 2013 07:59:09PM *  2 points [-]
  1. Nearly all possible lists of rules would be too lengthy and complex to be encoded in a space the size of the observable universe. By comparison, our universe's rules seem likely to be able to be written on a t-shirt or two, especially when you consider how many of the rules are structurally similar. So, yes, I consider that simple. Simple to build into a universe simulator, if not simple for a human to inutit. (I'm not sure what you mean by "macroscopic phenomena... have their own rules".)

  2. I shudder too! There may be simpler possible rules, but the number of sapience-permitting rules much simpler than ours is probably very small. (And it's certainly vanishingly small relative to the number of sapience-permitting rules more complex than ours.)

  3. For now, we can combine 'exceptionless' with 'uniform across space and time', unless someone has a thought about how to distinguish the two.

  4. Yes. My expectation is that we live in a bubble of simplicity within a more complex structure. I think the koan is meant to be a generalization about our own observable universe (hence its temporal character), not speculation about our world's metaphyical substrate. Though it's obviously at least a clue.

  5. I agree there are costs to saving local determinism (and serious unsolved questions in the neighborhood), but it's still an extremely plausible model. And when you combine it with non-local determinism, we'll have accounted for all the plausible hypotheses. Determinism rather than locality is the point I want to emphasize, since it only requires that we deny Collapse interpretations.

EPR doesn't challenge MWI-style local determinism. (Though it does limit the usefulness of that knowledge, since we don't know which part of the wave function we're in.)

The purpose of the rules is actually to change reality, at least as we perceive it.

I'm not seeing why that disagrees with the wiki. One goal is just more proximate than the other, and more specific to the case at hand. The purpose of a hammer is to improve human life; but the purpose of a hammer is also to put nails in stuff.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 28 August 2013 05:16:07AM *  0 points [-]

Here is the latest list of the basic rules

That doesn't appear to be a list, or a rule, or anything meaningful, since it has no equality or inequality symbols.

Your main point seem basically correct. I think RobbBB is trying to get at something meaningful, but is heading in the wrong direction with his demand for definitive, exceptionless, deterministic rules. It's all about information, and information accommodates exceptions and non-determinism.

Comment author: shminux 28 August 2013 06:24:54AM 2 points [-]

That doesn't appear to be a list, or a rule, or anything meaningful, since it has no equality or inequality symbols.

Yeah, sorry, this is just the Lagrangian of the Standard Model of particle physics, it's used to calculate probability amplitudes. That's where you get the equal sign.

Comment author: Lumifer 27 August 2013 06:43:55PM 1 point [-]

What the koan means is that we live in a cosmos whose structure and dynamics are determined by a short list of simple exceptionless rules

How do you know the list is short and the rules are simple?

What do the words "short" and "simple" mean here?

Comment author: RobbBB 27 August 2013 08:15:03PM -1 points [-]

I don't think that most high-complexity algorithms for building a life-permitting observable universe would allow a theory as simple as human physics to approximate the algorithm as well as our observable universe does.

Do you think the observable universe is a lot more complicated than it appears?

Comment author: skepsci 03 September 2013 02:51:56PM 2 points [-]

This is trivially false. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that there is a short, simple set of rules for building a life permitting observable universe. Now add an arbitrary, small, highly complex perturbation to that set of rules. Voila, infinitely many high complexity algorithms which can be well-approximated by low complexity algorithms.

Comment author: RobbBB 03 September 2013 04:08:18PM *  1 point [-]

How does demonstrating 'infinitely many algorithms have property X' help falsify 'most algorithms lack property X'? Infinitely many integers end with the string ...30811, but that does nothing to suggest that most integers do.

Maybe most random life-permitting algorithms beyond a certain level of complexity have lawful regions where all one's immediate observations are predictable by simple rules. But in that case I'd want to know the proportion of observers in such universes that are lucky enough to end up in an island of simplicity. (As opposed to being, say, Boltzmann brains.)

Comment author: Kawoomba 27 August 2013 09:07:46PM *  1 point [-]

Do you think the observable universe is a lot more complicated than it appears?

The observable universe is enormously complicated, not in its rules but in its configuration ("indexical" complexity = complexity).

Comment author: Lumifer 27 August 2013 08:44:53PM 1 point [-]

most high-complexity algorithms for building a life-permitting observable universe would allow

I have no idea what these algorithms might be are and neither do you. Accordingly I don't see any basis for speculating what will they allow.

Do you think the observable universe is a lot more complicated than it appears?

I think the observable universe appears to be very complicated.

I am still interested in what do you mean by "short" and "simple". The default rule is that "man is the measure of all things" so presumably you are using these words in the context of what is short and simple for the human brain.

Requiring the universe to be constructed in a way that is short and simple for the brains of a single species on a planet in a provincial star system in some galaxy seems to be carrying the anthropic principle a bit too far.

Comment author: RobbBB 27 August 2013 08:51:05PM *  -1 points [-]

I have no idea what these algorithms might be are and neither do you. Accordingly I don't see any basis for speculating what will they allow.

Well, let's think about whether we have a proof of concept. What's an example of a generalization about high-complexity algorithms that might show most of them to be easily usefully compressed, for an observer living inside one? At this point it's OK if we don't know that the generalization holds; I just want to know what it could even look like to discover that a universe that looks like ours (as opposed to, say, one that looks like a patchwork or a Boltzmann Braintopia) is the norm for high-complexity sapience-permitting worlds.

ETA: Since most conceivable universes are very very complicated, I'd agree that we probably live in a very very complicated universe, if it could be shown that our empirical data doesn't strongly support nomic simplicity.

The default rule is that "man is the measure of all things" so presumably you are using these words in the context of what is short and simple for the human brain.

No, I'm saying it's short and simple relative to the number of ways a universe could be, and short and simple relative to the number of ways a life-bearing universe could be. There's no upper bound on how complicated a universe could in principle be, but there is a lower bound, and our physics is, even in human terms, not far off from that lower bound.

Comment author: skepsci 03 September 2013 02:55:31PM 3 points [-]

Humans have a preference for simple laws because those are the ones we can understand and reason about. The history of physics is a history of coming up with gradually more complex laws that are better approximations to reality.

Why not expect this trend to continue with our best model of reality becoming more and more complex?

Comment author: Lumifer 27 August 2013 09:11:35PM 2 points [-]

I'm saying it's short and simple relative to the number of ways a universe could be

In this case I can apply the "short & simple" descriptor to anything at all in the observable universe. That makes it not very useful.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 26 August 2013 07:16:49PM *  0 points [-]

What's "the phenomenon"?

I'm going to be willfully cagey about that. What I really mean by "the phenomenon" is "whatever's going on". Or whatever's going on that we're cognitively accessing or representing. It needn't all add up to a world that makes my map true; but it will add up to a world that explains why my map looks the way it does.

As far as I can tell, you are talking about Qualia, the subjective experience. Don't be shy - we are allowed to talk about it.

Comment author: RobbBB 26 August 2013 07:43:49PM *  1 point [-]

Qualia are a candidate for being part (or all) of the phenomenon. Egan's Law doesn't rule out the possibility that eliminativism is true, and qualia are an illusion. But it does insist that if they're an illusion (the sort of illusion zombie Chalmers suffers from in zombie world), the physical basis for the illusion is then the normality that our finished theory has to reproduce and explain.

I'm not setting qualia to one side because I think they're a bad topic for discussion. I'm setting them to one side because they're less metaphysically innocent than the 'normality' of a (true and binding) 'It all adds up to normality', less metaphysically innocent than the 'phenomenon' of a (true and binding) 'Save the phenomenon'.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 26 August 2013 08:06:51PM *  0 points [-]

eliminativism is true, and qualia are an illusion

I wasn't aware of eliminativism. After reading the wikipedia page, eliminativism seems to be nothing more than reductionism applied to the philosophy of mind, but I don't see what problems reductionism poses for qualia. I don't think that I'm missing a logical step, nor do I feel confused on this genre of philosophical issues. So if many people perceive that qualia and reductionism are incompatible, my current hypothesis is that "qualia' has some sort of definitional connotation attached to it that I'm not aware of, which somehow interferes with reductionism. I'd like to be informed about these connotations.

I guess "experience" is the most innocent word? Honestly, "Qualia", "(Subjective) experience", and "(save the) Phenomenon" all seem precisely identical to me, and I only use "qualia" because it's short and doesn't have any other definitions. If it's picked up additional connotations, then I'll have to find a new label for what I will temporarily call "Property Q, which separates counterfactual mathematical structures from reality".

Comment author: Juno_Watt 26 August 2013 09:13:10PM 1 point [-]

Reductionism says there is some thing existing X which is composed of, undestandable in terms of, and ultimately identical to some other existing thing Y. ELiminativism says X doesn't exist. Heat has been reduced, phlogiston has been eliminated.

Comment author: RobbBB 26 August 2013 08:51:36PM *  1 point [-]

Qualia are the specific qualitative properties of our experience, as accessed by first-person introspection. The raw redness of the red you notice in your field of vision, for instance, as contrasted with the functional state of visually detecting light of wavelength 620–740 nm that an alien building a cognitive model of your behavior might initially construct. (Which is not to say that those two properties are non-identical. But if the two are identical, this must be discovered, not just stipulated.)

There are several popular arguments for the irreducibility of qualia (and, more generally, against the reliability of introspection as a method for directly reading off part of our world's ontology), which has made them controversial posits.

In a conversation about mindstuff, what Eliezer calls 'Reductionism' is what I'd call 'physicalism' — the doctrine that the mental (unlike physicsy stuff) is non-fundamental, that it can in principle be fully explained in non-mental terms. The 'reductionism' I think about (which I'll distinguish by making it minuscule) is the more specific doctrine that mental stuff — in this case, phenomenal properties, qualia — exists and is reducible. So a physicalist has to either eliminate or reduce every mental posit.

Eliminativists might insist that we reject qualia because the evidence for them is strictly first-person and introspective (phenomenological) rather than sensory and in-the-world (scientific). Or an eliminativist might think that we have strong prior grounds for accepting physicalism, but that reductionism is a doomed project, say, because of the Mary's Room argument.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 27 August 2013 04:29:07PM *  1 point [-]

first-person and introspective (phenomenological) rather than sensory and in-the-world (scientific)

...what exactly is the difference between these two things? Observation, evidence, etc... are qualia.

qualia — exists and is reducible

If you are saying that problem of qualia is in the realm of neuroscience, I think this is the wrong way to go about it. Neuroscience might make some things more obvious - as it has done with free will - but the answer has been available to us all along. We need not look at an actual brain...we don't even need to look at an actual universe. These sorts of answers hold true no matter what sort of universe you are in, so the word "exists" is inappropriate - you wouldn't say that Bayes theorem "exists", would you?

Qualia (or property Q) is the property that makes things Real in the first place. Qualia is the property that separates the actual universe from the range of all possible universes. All of science and epistemic rationality is an attempt to create models that describe qualia.

Comment author: RobbBB 27 August 2013 08:24:43PM *  0 points [-]

Introspection is a perception-like, reflective 'inner sense'. It's modeling your mental states as mental states, by a relatively non-inferential process. Sensory perception is vision, taste, etc.

Qualia (or property Q) is the property that makes things Real in the first place. Qualia is the property that separates the actual universe from the range of all possible universes.

  1. But there are parts of the universe no one is experiencing. What does it mean to say that there are qualia (properties of experience) there, if there aren't any subjects of experience to be found?

  2. Do you have in mind something like Russell's The relation of sense-data to physics?

  3. Don't all properties distinguish actual universes from non-actual ones? If something isn't actually a bowling ball, then it isn't a bowling ball. I don't see what work qualia is doing here, or what problem it's solving.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 28 August 2013 04:52:40AM *  0 points [-]

Introspection is a perception-like, reflective 'inner sense'. It's modeling your mental states as mental states, by a relatively non-inferential process. Sensory perception is vision, taste, etc.

Yeah, that's what the words mean, but really, what's the difference between the two? There's no sharp distinction between sensory and introspective perception.

1) Well firstly, qualia are only for you, not for others - I'm pseudo-solopsist that way. But to answer the question: qualia are the Known parts of Reality, and everything else is the Unknown. You can guess at the Unknown using Bayes theorem, and stuff.

2) Maybe? He's being a bit long winded and I'm having trouble ascertaining the main point without spending too much time.

only one term of the correlation, namely, the sensible term, is ever found: the other term seems essentially incapable of being found.

Yes, this is what I mean by qualia being knowns and everything else being unknowns

Physics exhibits sense-data as functions of physical objects, but verification is only possible if physical objects can be exhibited as functions of sense-data.

I'm not sure where he is going with that one as there are many possible interpretations as to what he means. I do think that models are only candidates for being True if they output the correct qualia - and all such models that fit this criteria are then ranked from lowest to highest complexity.

3) No. The counterfactual universe y=3x+7 has properties: the slope is 3, it contains the point (0, 7) and so on. But our reality is not merely "y=3x+7". You know this because you are experiencing things that are decidedly not in the universe "y=3x+7". In the same vein, the counterfactual universe where the sky is green is not real either, and you know this for the same reason.

If your qualia consisted of [(-1, 4), (0, 7), (1, 10)] and so on, with a new point appearing every second, you might consider "y=3x+7 with x=x+1 every second" as a practical model for your universe (although not a complete model - you still need to explain the existence of your thoughts). But that's not our observation...hence, that's not a candidate model of what our universe looks like.

To put it in different terms: the thing that distinguishes reality from theoretical alternatives is observation.

Comment author: Juno_Watt 26 August 2013 09:09:58PM 0 points [-]

I agree with most of this, although I am not sure that the way strawberries taste to me is a posit.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 26 August 2013 09:34:44PM -1 points [-]

I don't see what problems reductionism poses for qualia.

I've never gotten this either. It has always seemed to me that qualia exist, and that they can fully be explained by reductionism and physicalism (presumably as some sort of function of our nervous system interacting with stimuli). There are apparently some people who have a strong intuition that they can't be explained in such a fashion, but I do not share this intuition.

It seems to me that attempting to eliminate qualia is a repeat of the comedy of behaviorism. "All these mystical people claim that qualia can't be explained by physics, so I'll say qualia don't exist at all! That'll show 'em!"

(At his blog Eric S. Raymond wrote an article arguing that qualia are probably the sensation one feels when one's stimuli processing systems light up, and that attempting to eliminate them is silly).

Comment author: RobbBB 27 August 2013 02:05:32AM *  0 points [-]

"I don't see what problems reductionism poses for qualia."

"I've never gotten this either."

I think I may write a sequence about this. I've noticed that there are a lot more LW posts trying to solve the Hard Problem (or insisting that it's a pseudo-problem) than trying to explain what 'Hard Problem' means in the first place, or trying to state it precisely.

Thus I see a lot of people insisting that the Hard Problem either isn't a problem, or isn't hard, without investing any time into steel-manning (or even reading) the Other Side. Eliezer, actually, is one of the few LWers I've seen who generally grants that it's both hard and a problem.

A sequence that spent more time trying to figure out what the problem is, and what methodology is appropriate for such a strange topic, might also be more domain-generally useful than one that leaps straight into picking the best solutions (or mocking the worst),

There are apparently some people who have a strong intuition that they can't be explained in such a fashion, but I do not share this intuition.

Do you understand exactly why they have the intuition, and what their intuition amounts to?

It seems to me that attempting to eliminate qualia is a repeat of the comedy of behaviorism. "All these mystical people claim that qualia can't be explained by physics, so I'll say qualia don't exist at all! That'll show 'em!"

That may be true for eliminativists who are behaviorists, like perhaps Dennett. But it's not true for eliminativists who acknowledge that introspective evidence is admissible evidence, and just deny that the evidence for qualia outweighs the evidence for the conjunction 'physicalism is true, and phenomenal reductionism is false'.

If you can't regenerate the reasons people disagree with you -- if you're still at the stage where the opposing side purely sounds like a silly caricature, with no coherent supporting arguments -- then you should have low confidence that you know their positions' strong and weak points.

Comment author: Juno_Watt 26 August 2013 09:44:46PM 0 points [-]

It has always seemed to me that qualia exist, and that they can fully be explained by reductionism and physicalism

Can you point me to such an explanation??

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 26 August 2013 10:17:47PM *  1 point [-]

There's actually one in that essay I linked to at the end of my post. Here is the most relevant paragraph (discussing the Mary's Room problem):

Here is my physicalist account of Mary’s “Wow!” What she learns is what it feels like to have the color-processing pathways of her brain light up. This is an objective fact about her subjectivity; with a sufficiently good MRI we could actually see the difference in patterns of occipital-lobe activity. And that will probably be a world-changing experience for Mary, fully worthy of a “Wow!”, even if we concede the Mary’s-Room premise that she has not learned anything about the world outside her own skull.

Reading Wikipedia's entry on qualia, it seems to me that most of the arguments that qualia can't be explained by reductionism are powered by the same intuition that makes us think that you can give someone superpowers without changing them in any other way. Anyone with a basic knowledge of physiology knows the idea you can give someone the powers of Spider-Man or Aquaman without changing their physical appearance or internal anatomy is silly. Modern superhero writers have actually been forced to acknowledge this by occasionally referencing ways that such characters are physically different from humans (in ways that don't cosmetically affect them, of course).

But because qualia are a property of our brain's interaction with external stimuli, rather than a property of our bodies, the idea that you could change someone's qualia without changing their brain or the external world fails to pass our nonsense detector. If I wake up and the spectrum is inverted, something is wrong with my brain, or something is wrong with the world.

Comment author: Juno_Watt 26 August 2013 10:31:17PM *  0 points [-]

That isn't a reductive explanaiton, becuase no attempt is made to show how Mary;s red quale breaks down into smaller component parts. In fact, it doens;t do much more than say subjectivity exists, and occurs in sync with brain states. As such, it is compatible with dualism.

Reading Wikipedia's entry on qualia, it seems to me that most of the arguments that qualia can't be explained by reductionism are powered by the same intuition that makes us think that you can give someone superpowers without changing them in any other way.

You mean p-zombie arguments?

But because qualia are a property of our brain's interaction with external stimuli, rather than a property of our bodies, the idea that you could change someone's qualia without changing their brain or the external world fails to pass our nonsense detector.

Whatever,tThat doesn;t actuall provide an explanation of qualia.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 26 August 2013 11:27:24PM *  2 points [-]

That isn't a reductive explanaiton, becuase no attempt is made to show how Mary;s red quale breaks down into smaller component parts.

I presume that would be "Mary's qualia are caused by the feeling the color-processing pathways of her brain light up. The color processing parts are made of neurons, which are made of molecules, which are made of atoms. Those parts of the brain are then connected to another part of the brain by more neurons, which are similarly composed. When those color processing parts fire this causes the connecting neurons to fire in a certain pattern. These patterns of firings are what her feelings are made of. Feelings are made out of firing neurons, which are in turn made out of atoms."

As such, it is compatible with dualism.

I don't get the appeal of dualism. Qualia can't run on machines made out of atoms and quarks, but there is some other mysterious substance that composes our mind, and qualia can run on machines made out of this substance? Why the extra step? Why not assume that atoms and quarks are the substrate that qualia run on? What hypothetical special properties does this substance have that let qualia run on it, but not on atoms?

I'm sure that if we ever did discover some sort of disembodied soul made out of a weird previously unknown substance that was attached to the brain and appeared to contain our consciousness, Dave Chalmers would argue that qualia couldn't possibly be reduced down to something as basic as [newly discovered substance], and that obviously this disembodied soul couldn't possibly contain consciousness, that has to be contained somewhere else. There is no possible substance, no possible anything, that could ever satisfy the dualist's intuitions.

You mean p-zombie arguments?

Yes, plus the inverted spectrum argument, and all the other "conceivability arguments." I can conceive of myself walking on walls, bench-pressing semi-trucks, and flying without making any modifications to my body or changing the external world. But that's because my brain is bad at conceiving stuff and fudges using shortcuts. If I actually start thinking in extremely detailed terms of my muscle tissues and the laws of physics, it becomes obvious that you can't conceive of such a thing.

If anyone argued "I can imagine an anorexic person with almost no muscles lifting a truck, therefore strength cannot be caused by one's muscles," they would be laughed at. P-zombies and inverted spectrums deserve similar ridicule.

Comment author: Juno_Watt 27 August 2013 01:11:03AM 0 points [-]

Feelings are made out of firing neurons, which are in turn made out of atoms."

A claim that some X is made of some Y is not showing how X's are made of Y's. Can you explain why red is produced and not soemthing other.

I don't get the appeal of dualism.

I wasn't selling dualism, was noting that ESR's account is not particualrly phsycialist as well as being not particularly explanatory,

P-zombies and inverted spectrums deserve similar ridicule.

I find the Mary argument more convincing.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 27 August 2013 01:51:55AM 1 point [-]

Can you explain why red is produced and not soemthing other.

There are many different neuron firing patterns. Some produce various shades of red, other produce other stuff.

I find the Mary argument more convincing.

The intuition that Mary's Room activates is that no amount of book-learning can substitute for firsthand experience. This is because we can't always use knowledge we obtain from reading about experiences to activate the same neurons that having those experiences would activate. The only way to activate them and experience those feeling is to have the activating experience.

Now, in Dennett's RoboMary variation of the experience, RoboMary would probably not say "Wow!" That is because she is capable of constructing a brain emulator of herself seeing red inside her own head, and then transferring the knowledge of what those neurons (or circuits in this case) felt when activated. She already knows what seeing red feels like, even though she's never seen it.

Comment author: hairyfigment 27 August 2013 12:36:01AM 0 points [-]