Sunday, October 03, 2010

Ron's new metaphysics

This idea isn't quite ready for prime time, but I seemed to be wearing out my welcome so I'm going to give this my best shot.

First, some ground rules: If one accepts quantum mechanics (and I do) then one has no choice but to concede that any metaphysics is going to be at least to a certain extent metaphorical. I cannot even invoke the concept of "I" -- can't even type the capital C in "Cogito..." -- without implicitly accepting that I am a classical entity of some sort. But there are no classical entities. The universe is quantum. So the minute I begin to speak or type or think -- the instant "I" do anything -- I have already left true metaphysical reality behind to a certain extent. I may be metaphysically quantum, but that is not the I that I care about. The I that I care about is classical. It has a brain that processes classical information and a body that exists at a particular place and time and observes the universe from the privileged vantage point of "here" and "now." Getting even to that point from the perspective of hard science requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief.

What happens if we take this suspension of disbelief not as a necessary evil that we need to accept in order to deal with, well, whatever it is we decide we need to deal with (this is one of the things that I could use more time to work out) but look at it instead as a means of acquiring useful "knowledge"? I put knowledge in scare quotes because the knowledge we acquire this way isn't strictly true, in the sense that it is not strictly true that we "are" classical entities. But it's a useful approximation for certain purposes, like getting through the day.

So leaving aside the details, what do we "know"? We're human. We have brains that process classical information. We are built by DNA, which also processes classical information, though in a way that is very different from brains. We have constructed digital computers, which also process classical information in ways that is different from both brains and DNA. (And here I don't mean fundamentally different, just operationally different. This is the reason that AI is hard.) The governing dynamic of this incredibly rich and complicated system is Darwinian evolution: random variation and natural selection for reproductive fitness. Intelligence is an emergent property layered on top of evolution. Nothing new here. But remember, none of this is "true" on the most fundamental level. On the most fundamental level all there is is the quantum wave function. But that is not of interest to "us" because "we" are classical entities.

What happens if we pop up one more level, if we leave the level of classical physics and start looking at this complex and chaotic system on its own terms?

Let me try to explain a little more what I mean by that. As scientists (and Scientists) we are familiar and comfortable with two fundamentally different perspectives on reality: the quantum and the classical. The classical "emerges" from the quantum through decoherence. It isn't "really" real in a metaphysical sense, but it is a useful approximation to reality for us because "we" are classical entities.

What if we imagine going up one more level in this hierarchy? Is there some sort of useful concept of "reality" that "emerges" from the classical just as the classical "emerges" from the quantum? I believe there is. For want of a better term I will call it the "informational" level. To move from the quantum to the classical one stops thinking in terms of amplitudes and starts thinking in terms of particles. To move from the classical to the informational one stops thinking in terms of particles and starts thinking in terms of bits.

When I was at JPL I found that it was surprisingly difficult to communicate some of the subtleties of software engineering to scientists. It was surprising because these were not stupid people. They were brilliant, the best in their field. And yet when I tried to explain things like declarative versus procedural programming they just Didn't Get It. Eventually I developed a theory of why they had such a mental block against these concepts: it was because these people were all specialists in the physical sciences. In other words, they were used to thinking about the world in terms of physics, in terms of particles, in terms of things. But bits aren't things. Bits are states of things, or even more difficult to grasp, they are correlations between states of things. They are as different from things as things are different from quantum wave functions. And seeing the universe from the point of view of bits takes as big a mental leap.

What happens if we make this leap?

Well, the first thing that happens is we invent computer science. That's dramatic (look around you) but it does not yet reach the level of precipitating a metaphysical crisis. That comes when you realize that nature may have already invented computer science before humans did.

Consider your spleen. (I don't know why my brain has gotten hung up on spleens, but for some reason every time I have contemplated this part of the story that's the word that has jumped up and volunteered for duty.) It has no idea that it is part of your body. It just sits there and does whatever it is that spleens do (which thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia I could find out in a matter of seconds but honestly at the moment I'm happier not knowing). But imagine if whatever it is that spleens do was so complex that it turned out to be a significant reproductive advantage for your spleen to have its own brain. And imagine that that brain got complex enough to become self-aware in some spleenly way. After all, there is no inherent reason why biological data processing system should not evolve to be multi-cored.

What would it be like to be a spleen?

Well, from the point of view of being a human (or should I say from the point of view of being a human brain?) I would think it would be pretty awful. It's dark and wet and smelly in there. You can't go to the movies or surf the web or have sex. But of course a spleen's brain wouldn't evolve to care about those things. A spleen's brain would evolve to be happy to be a spleen. Any spleen that achieved the sort of self awareness that a human brain has wold fall into a deep despair at the realization that it is merely a spleen and it would commit spleenicde. Evolution would see to it that spleen brains evolved in such a way as to preserve the illusion (for spleens) that being a spleen was a noble and honorable existence, perhaps even that they were created in the image of God.

The Great Conspiracy theory is: our brains are spleens for entities made of bits.

It's getting late and I'm running out of steam so the rest will have to wait for the next installment.


Mike said...

Uh huh.

Are these bitty-entities like memes, in Dawkins' original sense, with a many-to-many mapping to their meatbag hosts? Or are they one-to-one like Cartesian souls?

And is the next post going to contain some of that evidence that's drawing you ineluctably to this conclusion?

Ron said...

> Are these bitty-entities like memes, in Dawkins' original sense, with a many-to-many mapping to their meatbag hosts?


> Or are they one-to-one like Cartesian souls?


> And is the next post going to contain some of that evidence that's drawing you ineluctably to this conclusion?


Don Geddis said...

There's a famous philosophy of mind essay called "What is it like to be a bat?" Perhaps we'll have to add, "what would it be like to be a spleen?" to the list... :-)

I'm eager to read your next installment, and find out what these bit-entities are that you have in mind, and your evidence.

To think ahead for a second: you started this sequence wondering what you should do with the rest of your life. I just want to note that, an understanding of where we came from, doesn't necessarily imply what choices we should make. I can realize that sex evolved to be pleasurable because of reproduction; yet I'm perfectly happy to hijack this mechanism and use birth control. Even though that defeats the ostensible purpose of sex, my individuals goals are not necessarily the same as evolution's goals.

Similarly, you might be a spleen, but that doesn't mean you need to sacrifice yourself for the good of the human host.

Ron said...

> "What is it like to be a bat?"

I remember reading that a long time ago. I remember it not making a lot of sense to me at the time. Maybe I should revisit it. Honestly though, the whole spleen thing was intended to be just a lighthearted metaphor. There's no particular reason to be talking about spleens except that "spleen" sounds funny, and in general no one outside the medical profession knows what they are for.

> Similarly, you might be a spleen, but that doesn't mean you need to sacrifice yourself for the good of the human host.

Very true. But it does place some constraints on what you might be able to accomplish. It also might cause you some anguish to learn that your fellow spleens are occasionally sacrificed by the human host for their (the human host's) own benefit.

Also, I wanted to expand a little on my answer to Mike's question, which is right on point:

> Are these bitty-entities like memes

Yes, they are like memes. But they are not memes, they are what Susan Blackmore dubbed "meme complexes." A pithy way of expressing the GC theory is that Susan Blackmore was even more right than she realized, that meme complexes are fully fledged alien (in the sense of being radically different from us, not in the sense of little green men from other planets) life forms of which individual human consciousnesses are almost entirely unaware.