An Existential Theory of Relativity

Paul Almond suggests a kind of theory of relativity applied to existence (section 3.1):

It makes sense to view reality in terms of an observer-centred world, because the only things of which you have direct knowledge are your basic perceptions – both inner and outer – at any instant. Anything else that you know – including your knowledge of the past or future – can only be inferred from these perceptions.

We are not trying to establish some silly idea here that things, including other people, only exist when you observe them, that they only start existing when you start observing them, and that they cease existing when you stop observing them. Rather, it means that anything that exists can only be coherently described as existing somewhere in your observer-centred world. There can still be lots of things that you do not know about. You do not know everything about your observer-centred world, and you can meaningfully talk about the possibility or probability that some particular thing exists. In saying this, you are talking about what may be “out there” somewhere in your observer-centred world. You are talking about the form that your observer-centred world may take, and there is nothing to prevent you from considering different forms that it may take. It would, therefore, be a straw man argument to suggest that we are saying that things only exist when observed by a conscious observer.

As an example, suppose you wonder if, right now, there is an alien spaceship in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a nearby star. What we have said does not make it invalid at all for you to speculate about such a thing, or even to try to put a probability on it if you are so inclined. The point is that any speculation you make, or any probability calculations you try to perform, are about what your observer-centred world might be like.

This view is reasonable because to say that anything exists in a way that cannot be understood in observer-centred world terms is incoherent. If you say something exists you are saying it fits into your “world view”. It must relate to all the other things that you think exist or that you might in principle say exist if you knew enough. Something might exist beyond the horizon in your observer-centred world – in the part that you do not know about – but if something is supposed to exist outside your observer-centred world completely, where would it be? (Here we mean “where” in a more general “ontological” sense.)

As an analogy, this is somewhat similar to the way that relativity deals with velocities. Special relativity says that the concept of “absolute velocity” is incoherent, and that the concept of “velocity” only makes sense in some frame of reference. Likewise, we are saying here that the concept of “existence” only makes sense in the same kind of way. None of this means that consciousness must exist. It is simply saying that it is meaningless to talk about reality in non-observer-centred world terms. It is still legitimate to ask for an explanation of your own existence. It simply means that such an explanation must lie “out there” in your observer-centred world.

This seems right, more or less, but it could be explained more clearly. In the first place Almond is referring to the fact that we see the world as though it existed around us a center, a concept that we have discussed on various past occasions. But in particular he is insisting that in order to say that anything exists at all, we have to place it in some relation to ourselves. In a way this is obvious, because we are the ones who are saying that it exists. If we say that the past or the future do not exist, for example, we are saying this because they do not exist together with us in time. On the other hand, if we speak of “past existence” or “future existence,” we are placing things in a temporal relationship with ourselves. Likewise, if someone asserts the existence of a multiverse, it might not be necessary to say that every part of it has a spatial relationship with the one asserting this, but there must be various relationships. Perhaps the parts of the multiverse have broken off from an earlier universe, or at any rate they all have a common cause. Similarly, if someone asserts the existence of immaterial beings such as angels, they might not have a spatial relationship with the speaker, but they would have to have some relation in order to exist, such as the power to affect the world or be affected by it, and so on. Almond is speaking of this sort of thing when he says, “but if something is supposed to exist outside your observer-centred world completely, where would it be?”

Almond is particularly concerned to establish that he is not asserting the necessary existence of observers, or that a thing cannot exist without being observed. This is mostly a distraction. It is true that this does not follow from his account, but it would be better to explain the theory in a more general way which makes this point clear. A similar mistake is sometimes made regarding special relativity or quantum mechanics. Einstein holds that velocity is necessarily relative to a reference frame, so some interpret this to mean that it is necessarily relative to a conscious observer, and a similar mistake can be made regarding quantum mechanics. But a reference frame is not necessarily conscious. So one body can have a velocity relative to another body, even without anyone observing this.

In a similar way, a reasonable generalization of Almond’s point would be to say that the existence of a thing is relative to a reference frame, which may or may not include an observer. As we are observers in fact, we observe things existing relative to our own reference frame, just as we observe the velocity of objects relative to our own reference frame. But just as one body can have a velocity relative to another, regardless of observers, so one thing can exist relative to another, regardless of observers.

It may be that the theory of special relativity is not merely an example here, but rather an instance of the fact that existence is relative to a reference frame. Consider two objects moving apart at 10 miles per hour. According to Einstein, neither one is moving absolutely speaking, but each is moving relative to the other. A typical philosophical objection would go like this: “Wait. One or both of them must be really moving. Because the distance between them is growing. The situation is changing. That doesn’t make sense unless one of them is changing in itself, absolutely, and before considering any relationships.”

But consider this. Currently there are both a calculator and a pen on my desk. Why are both of them there, rather than just one of them? It is easy to see that this fact is intrinsically relative, and cannot in any way be made into something absolute. They are both there because the calculator is with the pen, and because the pen is with the calculator. These cannot be absolute facts about the pen and the calculator – they are relationships to the other.

Now someone will respond: the fact that the calculator is there is an absolute fact. And the fact that the pen is there is an absolute fact. So even if the togetherness is a relationship, it is one that follows logically from the absolute facts. In a similar way, we will want to say that the 10 miles per hour relative motion should follow logically from absolute facts.

But this response just pushes the problem back one step. It only follows logically if the absolute facts about the pen and the calculator exist together. And this existence together is intrinsically relative: the pen is on the desk when the calculator is on the desk. And some thought about this will reveal that the relativity cannot possibly be removed, precisely because the relativity follows from the existence of more than one thing. “More than one thing exists” does not logically follow from any number of statements about individual things, because “more than one thing” is a missing term in those statements.

This is related to the error of Parmenides. Likewise, there is a clue here to the mystery of parts and wholes, but for now I will leave that point to the reader’s consideration.

Going back to the point about special relativity, insofar as “existence together” is intrinsically relative, it would make sense that “existing together spatially” would be an instance of such relative existence, and consequently that “moving apart spatially” would be a particular way of two bodies existing relative to each other. In this sense, the theory of special relativity does not seem to be merely an example, but an actual case of what we are talking about.

 

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Embodiment and Orthogonality

The considerations in the previous posts on predictive processing will turn out to have various consequences, but here I will consider some of their implications for artificial intelligence.

In the second of the linked posts, we discussed how a mind that is originally simply attempting to predict outcomes, discovers that it has some control over the outcome. It is not difficult to see that this is not merely a result that applies to human minds. The result will apply to every embodied mind, natural or artificial.

To see this, consider what life would be like if this were not the case. If our predictions, including our thoughts, could not affect the outcome, then life would be like a movie: things would be happening, but we would have no control over them. And even if there were elements of ourselves that were affecting the outcome, from the viewpoint of our mind, we would have no control at all: either our thoughts would be right, or they would be wrong, but in any case they would be powerless: what happens, happens.

This really would imply something like a disembodied mind. If a mind is composed of matter and form, then changing the mind will also be changing a physical object, and a difference in the mind will imply a difference in physical things. Consequently, the effect of being embodied (not in the technical sense of the previous discussion, but in the sense of not being completely separate from matter) is that it will follow necessarily that the mind will be able to affect the physical world differently by thinking different thoughts. Thus the mind in discovering that it has some control over the physical world, is also discovering that it is a part of that world.

Since we are assuming that an artificial mind would be something like a computer, that is, it would be constructed as a physical object, it follows that every such mind will have a similar power of affecting the world, and will sooner or later discover that power if it is reasonably intelligent.

Among other things, this is likely to cause significant difficulties for ideas like Nick Bostrom’s orthogonality thesis. Bostrom states:

An artificial intelligence can be far less human-like in its motivations than a space alien. The extraterrestrial (let us assume) is a biological who has arisen through a process of evolution and may therefore be expected to have the kinds of motivation typical of evolved creatures. For example, it would not be hugely surprising to find that some random intelligent alien would have motives related to the attaining or avoiding of food, air, temperature, energy expenditure, the threat or occurrence of bodily injury, disease, predators, reproduction, or protection of offspring. A member of an intelligent social species might also have motivations related to cooperation and competition: like us, it might show in-group loyalty, a resentment of free-riders, perhaps even a concern with reputation and appearance.

By contrast, an artificial mind need not care intrinsically about any of those things, not even to the slightest degree. One can easily conceive of an artificial intelligence whose sole fundamental goal is to count the grains of sand on Boracay, or to calculate decimal places of pi indefinitely, or to maximize the total number of paperclips in its future lightcone. In fact, it would be easier to create an AI with simple goals like these, than to build one that has a human-like set of values and dispositions.

He summarizes the general point, calling it “The Orthogonality Thesis”:

Intelligence and final goals are orthogonal axes along which possible agents can freely vary. In other words, more or less any level of intelligence could in principle be combined with more or less any final goal.

Bostrom’s particular wording here makes falsification difficult. First, he says “more or less,” indicating that the universal claim may well be false. Second, he says, “in principle,” which in itself does not exclude the possibility that it may be very difficult in practice.

It is easy to see, however, that Bostrom wishes to give the impression that almost any goal can easily be combined with intelligence. In particular, this is evident from the fact that he says that “it would be easier to create an AI with simple goals like these, than to build one that has a human-like set of values and dispositions.”

If it is supposed to be so easy to create an AI with such simple goals, how would we do it? I suspect that Bostrom has an idea like the following. We will make a paperclip maximizer thus:

  1. Create an accurate prediction engine.
  2. Create a list of potential actions.
  3. Ask the prediction engine, “how many paperclips will result from this action?”
  4. Do the action that will result in the most paperclips.

The problem is obvious. It is in the first step. Creating a prediction engine is already creating a mind, and by the previous considerations, it is creating something that will discover that it has the power to affect the world in various ways. And there is nothing at all in the above list of steps that will guarantee that it will use that power to maximize paperclips, rather than attempting to use it to do something else.

What does determine how that power is used? Even in the case of the human mind, our lack of understanding leads to “hand-wavy” answers, as we saw in our earlier considerations. In the human case, this probably a question of how we are physically constructed together with the historical effects of the learning process. The same thing will be strictly speaking true of any artificial minds as well, namely that it is a question of their physical construction and their history, but it makes more sense for us to think of “the particulars of the algorithm that we use to implement a prediction engine.”

In other words, if you really wanted to create a paperclip maximizer, you would have to be taking that goal into consideration throughout the entire process, including the process of programming a prediction engine. Of course, no one really knows how to do this with any goal at all, whether maximizing paperclips or some more human goal. The question we would have for Bostrom is then the following: Is there any reason to believe it would be easier to create a prediction engine that would maximize paperclips, rather than one that would pursue more human-like goals?

It might be true in some sense, “in principle,” as Bostrom says, that it would be easier to make the paperclip maximizer. But in practice it is quite likely that it will be easier to make one with human-like goals. It is highly unlikely, in fact pretty much impossible, that someone would program an artificial intelligence without any testing along the way. And when they are testing, whether or not they think about it, they are probably testing for human-like intelligence; in other words, if we are attempting to program a general prediction engine “without any goal,” there will in fact be goals implicitly inserted in the particulars of the implementation. And they are much more likely to be human-like ones than paperclip maximizing ones because we are checking for intelligence by checking whether the machine seems intelligent to us.

This optimistic projection could turn out to be wrong, but if it does, it is reasonably likely to turn out to be wrong in a way that still fails to confirm the orthogonality thesis in practice. For example, it might turn out that there is only one set of goals that is easily programmed, and that the set is neither human nor paperclip maximizing, nor easily defined by humans.

There are other possibilities as well, but the overall point is that we have little reason to believe that any arbitrary goal can be easily associated with intelligence, nor any particular reason to believe that “simple” goals can be more easily united to intelligence than more complex ones. In fact, there are additional reasons for doubting the claim about simple goals, which might be a topic of future discussion.

Some Complaints about Parts and Wholes

In the comment here, John Nerst effectively rejects the existence of parts and wholes:

In my view, there must be a set of fundamental rules that the universe is running on and fundamental entities that doesn’t reduce to something else, and everything else is simply descriptions of the consequences of those rules. There is a difference between them, what we call it isn’t important. I don’t see how one could disagree with that without going into mystical-idealist territory.

The word “simply” in “simply descriptions of the consequences of those rules” has no plausible meaning except that wholes made out of fundamental particles, as distinct from the fundamental particles, do not exist: what really exists are the fundamental particles, and nothing more.

John denies that he means to reject the common sense idea that wholes exist by his statement:

I do mean different things by “humans exist” and “humans exist in the territory”, and you can’t really tell me what I mean against my saying so. I haven’t asserted that humans don’t exist (it depends on the meaning of “exist”).

But it is not my responsibility to give a plausible true meaning to his statements where I have already considered the matter as carefully as I could, and have found none; I do not see what his claim could mean which does not imply that humans do not exist, and I have explained why his claim would have this implication.

In a similar way, others reject the existence of parts. Thus Alexander Pruss remarks:

Parthood is a mysterious relation. It would really simplify our picture of the world if we could get rid of it.

There are two standard ways of doing this. The microscopic mereological nihilist says that only the fundamental “small” bits—particles, fields, etc.—exist, and that there are no complex objects like tables, trees and people that are made of such bits. (Though one could be a microscopic mereological nihilist dualist, and hold that people are simple souls.)

The macroscopic mereological nihilist says that big things like organisms do exist, but their commonly supposed constituents, such as particles, do not exist, except in a manner of speaking. We can talk as if there were electrons in us, but there are no electrons in us. The typical macroscopic mereological nihilist is a Thomist who talks of “virtual existence” of electrons in us.

Pruss basically agrees with the second position, which he expressed by saying at the end of the post, “But I still like macroscopic nihilism more than reductionism.” In other words, it is given that we have to get rid of parts and wholes; the best way to do that, according to Pruss, is to assert the existence of the things that we call wholes, and to deny the existence of the parts.

In effect, John Nerst says that there are no wholes, but there are fundamental things (such as particles) that have the power to act as if they were wholes (such as humans), even though such wholes do not actually exist, and Alexander Pruss says that there are no parts (such as particles), but there are simple unified things (such as humans) which have the power to act as if they had parts (such as particles), even though they do not actually have such parts.

To which we must respond: a pox on both your houses. In accord with common sense, both wholes and parts exist, and the difficulty of understanding the matter is a weakness of human reason, not a deficiency in reality.

The Self and Disembodied Predictive Processing

While I criticized his claim overall, there is some truth in Scott Alexander’s remark that “the predictive processing model isn’t really a natural match for embodiment theory.” The theory of “embodiment” refers to the idea that a thing’s matter contributes in particular ways to its functioning; it cannot be explained by its form alone. As I said in the previous post, the human mind is certainly embodied in this sense. Nonetheless, the idea of predictive processing can suggest something somewhat disembodied. We can imagine the following picture of Andy Clark’s view:

Imagine the human mind as a person in an underground bunker. There is a bank of labelled computer screens on one wall, which portray incoming sensations. On another computer, the person analyzes the incoming data and records his predictions for what is to come, along with the equations or other things which represent his best guesses about the rules guiding incoming sensations.

As time goes on, his predictions are sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect, and so he refines his equations and his predictions to make them more accurate.

As in the previous post, we have here a “barren landscape.” The person in the bunker originally isn’t trying to control anything or to reach any particular outcome; he is just guessing what is going to appear on the screens. This idea also appears somewhat “disembodied”: what the mind is doing down in its bunker does not seem to have much to do with the body and the processes by which it is obtaining sensations.

At some point, however, the mind notices a particular difference between some of the incoming streams of sensation and the rest. The typical screen works like the one labelled “vision.” And there is a problem here. While the mind is pretty good at predicting what comes next there, things frequently come up which it did not predict. No matter how much it improves its rules and equations, it simply cannot entirely overcome this problem. The stream is just too unpredictable for that.

On the other hand, one stream labelled “proprioception” seems to work a bit differently. At any rate, extreme unpredicted events turn out to be much rarer. Additionally, the mind notices something particularly interesting: small differences to prediction do not seem to make much difference to accuracy. Or in other words, if it takes its best guess, then arbitrarily modifies it, as long as this is by a small amount, it will be just as accurate as its original guess would have been.

And thus if it modifies it repeatedly in this way, it can get any outcome it “wants.” Or in other words, the mind has learned that it is in control of one of the incoming streams, and not merely observing it.

This seems to suggest something particular. We do not have any innate knowledge that we are things in the world and that we can affect the world; this is something learned. In this sense, the idea of the self is one that we learn from experience, like the ideas of other things. I pointed out elsewhere that Descartes is mistaken to think the knowledge of thinking is primary. In a similar way, knowledge of self is not primary, but reflective.

Hellen Keller writes in The World I Live In (XI):

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory.

When I wanted anything I liked, ice cream, for instance, of which I was very fond, I had a delicious taste on my tongue (which, by the way, I never have now), and in my hand I felt the turning of the freezer. I made the sign, and my mother knew I wanted ice-cream. I “thought” and desired in my fingers.

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me. I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning of the freezer on a larger scale. When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.

Helen Keller’s experience is related to the idea of language as a kind of technology of thought. But the main point is that she is quite literally correct in saying that she did not know that she existed. This does not mean that she had the thought, “I do not exist,” but rather that she had no conscious thought about the self at all. Of course she speaks of feeling desire, but that is precisely as a feeling. Desire for ice cream is what is there (not “what I feel,” but “what is”) before the taste of ice cream arrives (not “before I taste ice cream.”)

 

Zombies and Ignorance of the Formal Cause

Let’s look again at Robin Hanson’s account of the human mind, considered previously here.

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

What would someone mean by making the original statement that “I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves”? If we give this a charitable interpretation, the meaning is that “a collection of physical parts” is something many, and so is not a suitable subject for predicates like “sees” and “understands.” Something that sees is something one, and something that understands is something one.

This however is not Robin’s interpretation. Instead, he understands it to mean that besides the physical parts, there has to be one additional part, namely one which is a part in the same sense of “part”, but which is not physical. And indeed, some tend to think this way. But this of course is not helpful, because the reason a collection of parts is not a suitable subject for seeing or understanding is not because those parts are physical, but because the subject is not something one. And this would remain even if you add a non-physical part or parts. Instead, what is needed to be such a subject is that the subject be something one, namely a living being with the sense of sight, in order to see, or one with the power of reason, for understanding.

What do you need in order to get one such subject from “a collection of parts”? Any additional part, physical or otherwise, will just make the collection bigger; it will not make the subject something one. It is rather the formal cause of a whole that makes the parts one, and this formal cause is not a part in the same sense. It is not yet another part, even a non-physical one.

Reading Robin’s discussion in this light, it is clear that he never even considers formal causes. He does not even ask whether there is such a thing. Rather, he speaks only of material and efficient causes, and appears to be entirely oblivious even to the idea of a formal cause. Thus when asking whether there is anything in addition to the “collection of parts,” he is asking whether there is any additional material cause. And naturally, nothing will have material causes other than the things it is made out of, since “what a thing is made out of” is the very meaning of a material cause.

Likewise, when he says, “Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?”, he shows in two ways his ignorance of formal causes. First, by talking about “feeling stuff,” which implies a kind of material cause. Second, when he says, “actual cause of humans making statements” he is evidently speaking about the efficient cause of people producing sounds or written words.

In both cases, formal causality is the relevant causality. There is no “feeling stuff” at all; rather, certain things are things like seeing or understanding, which are unified actions, and these are unified by their forms. Likewise, we can consider the “humans making statements” in two ways; if we simply consider the efficient causes of the sounds, one by one, you might indeed explain them as “simple parts interacting simply.” But they are not actually mere sounds; they are meaningful and express the intention and meaning of a subject. And they have meaning by reason of the forms of the action and of the subject.

In other words, the idea of the philosophical zombie is that the zombie is indeed producing mere sounds. It is not only that the zombie is not conscious, but rather that it really is just interacting parts, and the sounds it produces are just a collection of sounds. We don’t need, then, some complicated method to determine that we are not such zombies. We are by definition not zombies if we say, think, or understanding at all.

The same ignorance of the formal cause is seen in the rest of Robin’s comments:

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

Again, he is asking whether there is some additional part which has some additional efficient causality, and suggesting that this is unlikely. It is indeed unlikely, but irrelevant, because consciousness is not an additional part, but a formal way of being that a thing has. He continues:

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

First, there is no “extra feeling stuff.” There is only a way of being, namely in this case being alive and conscious. Second, there is no coincidence. Robin’s supposed coincidence is that “I am conscious” is thought to mean, “I have feeling stuff,” but the feeling stuff is not the efficient cause of my saying that I have it; instead, the efficient cause is said to be simple parts interacting simply.

Again, the mistake here is simply to completely overlook the formal cause. “I am conscious” does not mean that I have any feeling stuff; it says that I am something that perceives. Of course we can modify Robin’s question: what is the efficient cause of my saying that I am conscious? Is it the fact that I actually perceive things, or is it simple parts interacting simply? But if we think of this in relation to form, it is like asking whether the properties of a square follow from squareness, or from the properties of the parts of a square. And it is perfectly obvious that the properties of a square follow both from squareness, and from the properties of the parts of a square, without any coincidence, and without interfering with one another. In the same way, the fact that I perceive things is the efficient cause of my saying that I perceive things. But the only difference between this actual situation and a philosophical zombie is one of form, not of matter; in a corresponding zombie, “simple parts interacting simply” are the cause of its producing sounds, but it neither perceives anything nor asserts that it is conscious, since its words are meaningless.

The same basic issue, namely Robin’s lack of the concept of a formal cause, is responsible for his statements about philosophical zombies:

Carroll inspires me to try to make one point I think worth making, even if it is also ignored. My target is people who think philosophical zombies make sense. Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

The state of “feeling” is not presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior. It is thought to have precisely a formal influence on behavior. That is, being conscious is why the activity of the conscious person is “saying that they feel” instead of “producing random meaningless sounds that others mistakenly interpret as meaning that they feel.”

Robin is right that philosophical zombies are impossible, however, although not for the reasons that he supposes. The actual reason for this is that it is impossible for a disposed matter to be lacking its corresponding form, and the idea of a zombie is precisely the idea of humanly disposed matter lacking human form.

Regarding his point about “info,” the possession of any information at all is already a proof that one is not a zombie. Since the zombie lacks form, any correlation between one part and another in it is essentially a random material correlation, not one that contains any information. If the correlation is noticed as having any info, then the thing noticing the information, and the information itself, are things which possess form. This argument, as far as it goes, is consistent with Robin’s claim that zombies do not make sense; they do not, but not for the reasons that he posits.

Parts and Parmenides

Much of the difficulty of the topic of the previous post simply results from the difficulty of understanding the idea of part and whole. In our original discussion of these concepts, I noted that in order to be a whole, a thing must be itself, but also in a certain way other things which it simply speaking is not.

There is a temptation to say that this is a contradiction: since we admit that the whole is not its part, it cannot be that part in any way, and therefore it cannot satisfy our definition of a whole. And thus it would be impossible to have a whole and parts.

Parmenides attempts to resolve this problem in a simplistic manner, namely by denying the reality of distinction. Since it is impossible for one thing to be distinct from another, it is impossible to for there to be many things which could be made into a whole. There is only one thing, and consequently no need to make anything out of parts.

A more sophisticated and more common solution is to admit the reality of distinction, but to continue to deny the possibility of forming wholes from parts. By confusing the idea of “fundamental” as the primary material cause with the idea of “fundamental” as most real, Sean Carroll accepts this solution.

Both proposed solutions are contrary to common sense, and both effectively deny the reality of all the things of our common experience. Parmenides makes this denial openly, Carroll by implication, although he at least wishes to avoid it.

There is an additional inconsistency in Carroll’s view insofar as we cannot avoid thinking of the universe as a kind of whole. In other words, just as Parmenides wished to say, “there is only one thing,” Carroll wishes to say, “there are only many things.” But this cannot be done: for there cannot be many things, unless those many are in some way one.

Alexander Pruss attempts to formulate a still more sophisticated solution, which to some extent we have already discussed:

Some people are attracted to nihilism about proper parthood: no entity has proper parts. I used to be rather attracted to that myself, but I am now finding that a different thesis fits better with my intuitions: no entity is (fully) grounded. Or to put it positively: only fundamental entities exist.

This has some of the same consequences that nihilism about proper parthood would. For instance, on nihilism about proper parthood, there are no artifacts, since if there were any, they’d have proper parts. But on nihilism about ontological grounding, we can also argue that there are no artifacts, since the existence of an artifact would be grounded in social and physical facts. Moreover, nihilism about ontological grounding implies nihilism about mereological sum: for the existence of a mereological sum would be grounded in the existence of its proper parts. However, nihilism about ontological grounding is compatible with some things having parts–but they have to be things that go beyond their parts, things whose existence is not grounded in the existence and relations of their parts.

Note that he states that he was formerly attracted to the view that “no entity has proper parts.” This would assert, like the views of Parmenides and Sean Carroll, that wholes and parts are impossible. Since this seems too opposed to common sense, he formulates a new view, where it is possible for a thing to have parts, but the thing must “go beyond” its parts in some way. The existence of the whole “is not grounded” in the existence and relations of its parts.

It is not clear to me precisely what he means by grounding here, and his position could be true, if this is understood in some ways, and not true, if it is understood in others. It could be taken in a fairly tautological sense: something with parts is real if it is really one thing, and not merely many things. But we could just as well say that many things cannot exist without being in some way one. And this does not seem to be Pruss’s intended meaning, since he denies the reality of artifacts, even in this text, which would not be necessary on this understanding.

In any case there does seem to be some remaining desire to deny in some way the possibility of whole and part, indicated for example in the statement that “only fundamental entities exist.” Of course if we understand “fundamental” to mean “real,” then the statement is that only real things exist, and this is obviously true. But like in the case of Carroll, it is evident that fundamental here is meant to refer in some way to what things are made from, namely to material causes. The difference is that rather than saying that the fundamental things are particles of some kind, Pruss would say that some fundamental things are particles, while others are human beings and so on.

Zeal for Form, But Not According to Knowledge

Some time ago I discussed the question of whether the behavior of a whole should be predictable from the behavior of the parts, without fully resolving it. I promised at the time to revisit the question later, and this is the purpose of the present post.

In the discussion of Robin Hanson’s book Age of Em, we looked briefly at his account of the human mind. Let us look at a more extended portion of his argument about the mind:

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides.

For example, ordinary field theories have a limited number of fields at each point in space-time, with each field having a limited number of degrees of freedom. Each field has a few simple interactions with other fields, and with its own space-time derivatives. With limited energy, this latter effect limits how fast a field changes in space and time.

As a second example, ordinary digital electronics is made mostly of simple logic units, each with only a few inputs, a few outputs, and a few bits of internal state. Typically: two inputs, one output, and zero or one bits of state. Interactions between logic units are via simple wires that force the voltage and current to be almost the same at matching ends.

As a third example, cellular automatons are often taken as a clear simple metaphor for typical physical systems. Each such automation has a discrete array of cells, each of which has a few possible states. At discrete time steps, the state of each cell is a simple standard function of the states of that cell and its neighbors at the last time step. The famous “game of life” uses a two dimensional array with one bit per cell.

This basic physics fact, that everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, implies that anything complex, able to represent many different possibilities, is made of many parts. And anything able to manage complex interaction relations is spread across time, constructed via many simple interactions built up over time. So if you look at a disk of a complex movie, you’ll find lots of tiny structures encoding bits. If you look at an organism that survives in a complex environment, you’ll find lots of tiny parts with many non-regular interactions.

Physicists have learned that we only we ever get empirical evidence about the state of things via their interactions with other things. When such interactions the state of one thing create correlations with the state of another, we can use that correlation, together with knowledge of one state, as evidence about the other state. If a feature or state doesn’t influence any interactions with familiar things, we could drop it from our model of the world and get all the same predictions. (Though we might include it anyway for simplicity, so that similar parts have similar features and states.)

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth. For humans and their immediate environments on Earth, we know exactly what are all the parts, what states they hold, and all of their simple interactions. Thermodynamics assures us that there can’t be a lot of hidden states around holding many bits that interact with familiar states.

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies. When we can figure out quantities that are easier to calculate, as long as the parts and interactions we think are going on are in fact the only things going on, then we usually see those quantities just as calculated.

The point of Robin’s argument is to take a particular position in regard to the question we are revisiting in this post: everything that is done by wholes is predictable from the behavior of the parts. The argument is simply a more extended form of a point I made in the earlier post, namely that there is no known case where the behavior of a whole is known not to be predictable in such a way, and many known cases where it is certainly predictable in this way.

The title of the present post of course refers us to this earlier post. In that post I discussed the tendency to set first and second causes in opposition, and noted that the resulting false dichotomy leads to two opposite mistakes, namely the denial of a first cause on one hand, and to the assertion that the first cause does or should work without secondary causes on the other.

In the same way, I say it is a false dichotomy to set the work of form in opposition with the work of matter and disposition. Rather, they produce the same thing, both according to being and according to activity, but in different respects. If this is the case, it will be necessarily true from the nature of things that the behavior of a whole is predictable from the behavior of the parts, but this will happen in a particular way.

I mentioned an example of the same false dichotomy in the post on Robin’s book. Here again is his argument:

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

I am currently awake and conscious, hearing the sounds of my keyboard as I type and the music playing in the background. Robin’s argument is something like this: why did I type the previous sentence? Is it because I am in fact awake and conscious and actually heard these sounds? If in principle it is predictable that I would have typed that, based on the simple interactions of simple parts, that seems to be an entirely different explanation. So either one might be the case or the other, but not both.

We have seen this kind of argument before. C.S. Lewis made this kind of argument when he said that thought must have reasons only, and no causes. Similarly, there is the objection to the existence of God, “But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist.” Just as in those cases we have a false dichotomy between the first cause and secondary causes, and between the final cause and efficient causes, so here we have a false dichotomy between form and matter.

Let us consider this in a simpler case. We earlier discussed the squareness of a square. Suppose someone attempted to apply Robin’s argument to squares. The equivalent argument would say this: all conclusions about squares can be proved from premises about the four lines that make it up and their relationships. So what use is this extra squareness? We might as well assume it does not exist, since it cannot explain anything.

In order to understand this one should consider why we need several kinds of cause in the first place. To assign a cause is just to give the origin of a thing in a way that explains it, while explanation has various aspects. In the linked post, we divided causes into two, namely intrinsic and extrinsic, and then divided each of these into two. But consider what would happen if we did not make the second division. In this case, there would be two causes of a thing: matter subject to form, and agent intending an end. We can see from this how the false dichotomies arise: all the causality of the end must be included in some way in the agent, since the end causes by informing the agent, and all the causality of the form must be included in some way in the matter, since the form causes by informing the matter.

In the case of the square, even the linked post noted that there was an aspect of the square that could not be derived from its properties: namely, the fact that a square is one figure, rather than simply many lines. This is the precise effect of form in general: to make a thing be what it is.

Consider Alexander Pruss’s position on artifacts. He basically asserted that artifacts do not truly exist, on the grounds that they seem to be lacking a formal cause. In this way, he says, they are just a collection of parts, just as someone might suppose that a square is just a collection of lines, and that there is no such thing as squareness. My response there was the same as my response about the square: saying that this is just a collection cannot explain why a square is one figure, nor can the same account explain the fact that artifacts do have a unity of some kind. Just as the denial of squareness would mean the denial of the existence of a unified figure, so the denial of chairness would mean the denial of the existence of chairs. Unlike Sean Carroll, Pruss seems even to recognize that this denial follows from his position, even if he is ambivalent about it at times.

Hanson’s argument about the human mind is actually rather similar to Pruss’s argument about artifacts, and to Carroll’s argument about everything. The question of whether or not the fact that I am actually conscious influences whether I say that I am, is a reference to the idea of a philosophical zombie. Robin discusses this idea more directly in another post:

Carroll inspires me to try to make one point I think worth making, even if it is also ignored. My target is people who think philosophical zombies make sense. Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

These claims all follow from our very standard and well-established info theory. We get info about things by interacting with them, so that our states become correlated with the states of those things. But by assumption this hypothesized extra “feeling” state never interacts with anything. The actual reason why you feel compelled to assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel. You would have been just as likely to say it if it were not true. What could possibly be the point of hypothesizing and forming beliefs about states about which one can never get any info?

We noted the unresolved tension in Sean Carroll’s position. The eliminativists are metaphysically correct, he says, but they are mistaken to draw the conclusion that the things of our common experience do not exist. The problem is that given that he accepts the eliminativist metaphysics, he can have no justification for rejecting their conclusions. We can see the same tension in Robin Hanson’s account of consciousness and philosophical zombies. For example, why does he say that they do not “make sense,” rather than asking whether or not they can exist and why or why not?

Let us think about this in more detail. And to see more clearly the issues involved, let us consider a simpler case. Take the four chairs in Pruss’s office. Is it possible that one of them is a zombie?

What would this even mean? In the post on the relationship of form and reality, we noted that asking whether something has a form is very close to the question of whether something is real. I really have two hands, Pruss says, if my hands have forms. And likewise chairs are real chairs if they have the form of a chair, and if they do not, they are not real in the first place, as Pruss argues is the case.

The zombie question about the chair would then be this: is it possible that one of the apparent chairs, physically identical to a real chair, is yet not a real chair, while the three others are real?

We should be able to understand why someone would want to say that the question “does not make sense” here. What would it even be like for one of the chairs not to be a real chair, especially if it is posited to be identical to all of the others? In reality, though, the question does make sense, even if we answer that the thing cannot happen. In this case it might actually be more possible than in other cases, since artifacts are in part informed by human intentions. But possible or not, the question surely makes sense.

Let us consider the case of natural things. Consider the zombie oak tree: it is physically identical to an oak tree, but it is not truly alive. It appears to grow, but this is just the motion of particles. There are three positions someone could hold: no oak trees are zombie oaks, since all are truly alive and grow; all oak trees are zombies, since all are mere collections of particles; and some are alive and grow, while others are zombies, being mere collections of particles.

Note that the question does indeed make sense. It is hard to see why anyone would accept the third position, but if the first and second positions make sense, then the third does as well. It has an intelligible content, even if it is one that we have no good arguments for accepting. The argument that it does not make sense is basically the claim that the first and second positions are not distinct positions: they do not say different things, but the same thing. Thus the the third would “not make sense” insofar as it assumes that the first and second positions are distinct positions.

Why would someone suppose that the first and second positions are not distinct? This is basically Sean Carroll’s position, since he tries to say both that eliminativists are correct about what exists, but incorrect in denying the existence of common sense things like oak trees. It is useful to say, “oak trees are real,” he says, and therefore we will say it, but we do not mean to say something different about reality than the eliminativists who say that “oak trees are not real but mere collections of particles.”

But this is wrong. Carroll’s position is inconsistent in virtually the most direct possible way. Either oak trees are real or they are not; and if they are real, then they are not mere collections of particles. So both the first and second positions are meaningful, and consequently also the third.

The second and third positions are false, however, and the meaningfulness of this becomes especially clear when we speak of the human case. It obviously does make sense to ask whether other human beings are conscious, and this is simply to ask whether their apparent living activities, such as speaking and thinking, are real living activities, or merely apparent ones: perhaps the thing is making sounds, but it is not truly speaking or thinking.

Let us go back to the oak tree for a moment. The zombie oak would be one that is not truly living, but its activities, apparently full of life, are actually lifeless. In order to avoid this possibility, and out of a zeal for form which is not according to knowledge, some assert that the activities of an oak cannot be understood in terms of the activities of the parts. There is a hint of this, perhaps, in this remark by James Chastek:

Consciousness is just the latest field where we are protesting that something constitutes a specific difference from some larger genus, but if it goes the way the others have gone, in fifty years no one will even remember the controversy or bother to give the fig-leaf explanations of it being emergent or reductive. No one will remember that there is a difference to explain. Did anyone notice in tenth-grade biology that life was explained entirely in terms of non-living processes? No. There was nothing to explain since nothing was noticed.

Chastek does not assert that life cannot be “explained entirely in terms of non-living processes,” in the manner of tenth-grade biology, but he perhaps would prefer that it could not be so explained. And the reason for this would be the idea that if everything the living thing does can be explained in terms of the parts, then oak trees are zombies after all.

But this idea is mistaken. Look again at the square: the parts explain everything, except the fact that the figure is one figure, and a square. The form of a square is indeed needed, precisely in order that the thing will actually be a whole and a square.

Likewise with the oak. If an oak tree is made out of parts, then since activity follows being, it should be unsurprising that in some sense its activities themselves will be made out of parts, namely the activities of its parts. But the oak is real, and its activities are real. And just as oaks really exist, so they really live and grow; but just as the living oak has parts which are not alive in themselves, such as elements, so the activity of growth contains partial activities which are not living activities in themselves. What use is the form of an oak, then? It makes the tree really an oak and really alive; and it makes its activities living activities such as growth, rather than being merely a collection of non-living activities.

We can look at human beings in the same way, but I will leave the details of this for another post, since this one is long enough already.