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.

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.

Chastek on Determinism

On a number of occasions, James Chastek has referred to the impossibility of a detailed prediction of the future as an argument for libertarian free will. This is a misunderstanding. It is impossible to predict the future in detail for the reasons given in the linked post, and this has nothing to do with libertarian free will or even any kind of free will at all.

The most recent discussions of this issue at Chastek’s blog are found here and here. The latter post:

Hypothesis: A Laplacian demon, i.e. a being who can correctly predict all future actions, contradicts our actual experience of following instructions with some failure rate.

Set up: You are in a room with two buttons, A and B. This is the same set-up Soon’s free-will experiment, but the instructions are different.

Instructions: You are told that you will have to push a button every 30 seconds, and that you will have fifty trials. The clock will start when a sheet of paper comes out of a slit in the wall that says A or B. Your instructions are to push the opposite of whatever letter comes out.

The Apparatus: the first set of fifty trials is with a random letter generator. The second set of trials is with letters generated by a Laplacian demon who knows the wave function of the universe and so knows in advance what button will be pushed and so prints out the letter.

The Results: In the first set of trials, which we can confirm with actual experience, the success rate is close to 100%, but, the world being what it is, there is a 2% mistake rate in the responses. In the second set of trials the success rate is necessarily 0%. In the first set of trials, subject report feelings of boredom, mild indifference, continual daydreaming, etc. The feelings expressed in the second trial might be any or all of the following: some say they suddenly developed a pathological desire to subvert the commands of the experiment, others express feelings of being alienated from their bodies, trying to press one button and having their hand fly in the other direction, others insist that they did follow instructions and consider you completely crazy for suggesting otherwise, even though you can point to video evidence of them failing to follow the rules of the experiment, etc.

The Third Trial: Run the trial a third time, this time giving the randomly generated letter to the subject and giving the Laplacian letter to the experimenter. Observe all the trials where the two generate the same number, and interate the experiment until one has fifty trials. Our actual experience tells us that the subject will have a 98% success rate, but our theoretical Laplacian demon tells us that the success rate should be necessarily 0%. Since asserting that the random-number generator and the demon will never have the same response would make the error-rate necessarily disappear and cannot explain our actual experience of failures, the theoretical postulation of a Laplacian demon contradicts our actual experience. Q.E.D.

The post is phrased as a proof that Laplacian demons cannot exist, but in fact Chastek intends it to establish the existence of libertarian free will, which is a quite separate thesis; no one would be surprised if Laplacian demons cannot exist in the real world, but many people would be surprised if people turn out to have libertarian free will.

I explain in the comments there the problem with this argument:

Here is what happens when you set up the experiment. You approach the Laplacian demon and ask him to write the letter that the person is going to choose for the second set of 50 trials.

The demon will respond, “That is impossible. I know the wave function of the universe, and I know that there is no possible set of As and Bs such that, if that is the set written, it will be the set chosen by the person. Of course, I know what will actually be written, and I know what the person will do. But I also know that those do not and cannot match.”

In other words, you are right that the experiment is impossible, but this is not reason to believe that Laplacian demons are impossible; it is a reason to believe that it is impossible for anything to write what the person is going to do.

E.g. if your argument works, it proves either that God does not exist, or that he does not know the future. Nor can one object that God’s knowledge is eternal rather than of the future, since it is enough if God can write down what is going to happen, as he is thought to have done e.g. in the text, “A virgin will conceive etc.”

If you answer, as you should, that God cannot write what the person will do, but he can know it, the same applies to the Laplacian demon.

As another reality check here, according to St. Thomas a dog is “determinate to one” such that in the same circumstances it will do the same thing. But we can easily train a dog in such a way that no one can possibly write down the levers it will choose, since it will be trained to choose the opposite ones.

And still another: a relatively simple robot, programmed in the same way. We don’t need a Laplacian demon, since we can predict ourselves in every circumstance what it will do. But we cannot write that down, since then we would predict the opposite of what we wrote. And it is absolutely irrelevant that the robot is an “instrument,” since the argument does not have any premise saying that human beings are not instruments.

As for the third set, if I understood it correctly you are indeed cherry picking — you are simply selecting the trials where the human made a mistake, and saying, “why did he consistently make a mistake in these cases?” There is no reason; you simply selected those cases.

Chastek responds to this comment in a fairly detailed way. Rather than responding directly to the comment there, I ask him to comment on several scenarios. The first scenario:

If I drop a ball on a table, and I ask you to predict where it is going to first hit the table, and say, “Please predict where it is going to first hit the table, and let me know your prediction by covering the spot with your hand and keeping it there until the trial is over,” is it clear to you that:

a) it will be impossible for you to predict where it is going to first hit in this way, since if you cover a spot it cannot hit there

and

b) this has nothing whatsoever to do with determinism or indeterminism of anything.

The second scenario:

Let’s make up a deterministic universe. It has no human beings, no rocks, nothing but numbers. The wave function of the universe is this: f(x)=x+1, where x is the initial condition and x+1 is the second condition.

We are personally Laplacian demons compared to this universe. We know what the second condition will be for any original condition.

Now give us the option of setting the original condition, and say:

Predict the second condition, and set that as the initial condition. This should lead to a result like (1,1) or (2,2), which contradicts our experience that the result is always higher than the original condition. So the hypothesis that we know the output given the input must be false.

The answer: No. It is not false that we know the output given the input. We know that these do not and cannot match, not because of anything indeterminate, but because the universe is based on the completely deterministic rule that f(x)=x+1, not f(x)=x.

Is it clear:

a) why a Laplacian demon cannot set the original condition to the resulting condition
b) this has nothing to do with anything being indeterminate
c) there is no absurdity in a Laplacian demon for a universe like this

The reason why I presented these questions instead of responding directly to his comments is that his comments are confused, and an understanding of these situations would clear up that confusion. For unclear reasons, Chastek failed to respond to these questions. Nonetheless, I will respond to his detailed comments in the light of the above explanations. Chastek begins:

Here are my responses:

That is impossible… I know what will actually be written, and I know what the person will do. But I also know that those do not and cannot match

But “what will actually be written” is, together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe, an initial condition and “what the person will do” is an outcome. Saying these “can never match” means the demon is saying “the laws of nature do not suffice to go from some this initial condition to one of its outcomes” which is to deny Laplacian demons altogether.

The demon is not saying that the laws of nature do not suffice to go from an initial condition to an outcome. It is saying that “what will actually be written” is part of the initial conditions, and that it is an initial condition that is a determining factor that prevents itself from matching the outcome. In the case of the dropping ball above, covering the spot with your hand is an initial condition, and it absolutely prevents the outcome being that the ball first hits there. In the case of f(x), x is an initial condition, and it prevents the outcome from being x, since it will always be x+1. In the same way, in Chastek’s experiment, what is written is an initial condition which prevents the outcome from being that thing which was written.

If you answer, as you should, that God cannot write what the person will do, but he can know it, the same applies to the Laplacian demon.

When God announces what will happen he can be speaking about what he intends to do, while a LD cannot. I’m also very impressed by John of St. Thomas’s arguments that the world is not only notionally present to God but even physically present within him, which makes for a dimension of his speaking of the future that could never be said of an LD. This is in keeping with the Biblical idea that God not only looks at the world but responds and interacts with it. The character of prophesy is also very different from the thought experiment we’re trying to do with an LD: LD’s are all about what we can predict in advance, but Biblical prophesies do not seem to be overly concerned with what can be predicted in advance, as should be shown from the long history of failed attempts to turn the NT into a predictive tool.

If God says, “the outcome will be A,” and then consistently causes the person to choose A even when the person has hostile intentions, this will be contrary to our experience in the same way that the Laplacian demon would violate our experience if it always got the outcome right. You can respond, “ok, but that’s fine, because we’re admitting that God is a cause, but the Laplacian demon is not supposed to be affecting the outcome.” The problem with the response is that God is supposed to be the cause all of the time, not merely some of the time; so why should he not also say what is going to happen, since he is causing it anyway?

I agree that prophecy in the real world never tells us much detail about the future in fact, and this is verified in all biblical prophecies and in all historical cases such as the statements about the future made by the Fatima visionaries. I also say that even in principle God could not consistently predict in advance a person’s actions, and show him those predictions, without violating his experience of choice, but I say that this is for the reasons given here.

But the point of my objection was not about how prophecy works in the real world. The point was that Catholic doctrine seems to imply that God could, if he wanted, announce what the daily weather is going to be for the next year. It would not bother me personally if this turns out to be completely impossible; but is Chastek prepared to say the same? The real issues with the Laplacian demon are the same: knowing exactly what is going to happen, and to what degree it can announce what it knows.

we can easily train a dog in such a way that no one can possibly write down the levers it will choose, since it will be trained to choose the opposite ones.

Such an animal would follow instructions with some errors, and so would be a fine test subject for my experiment. This is exactly what my subject does in trial #1. I say the same for your robot example.

(ADDED LATER) I’m thankful for this point and developed for reasons given above on the thread.

This seems to indicate the source of the confusion, relative to my examples of covering the place where the ball hits, and the case of the function f(x) = x+1. There is no error rate in these situations: the ball never hits the spot you cover, and f(x) never equals x.

But this is really quite irrelevant. The reason the Laplacian demon says that the experiment is impossible has nothing to do with the error rate, but with the anti-correlation between what is written and the outcome. Consider: suppose in fact you never make a mistake. There is no error rate. Nonetheless, the demon still cannot say what you are going to do, because you always do the opposite of what it says. Likewise, even if the dog never fails to do what it was trained to do, it is impossible for the Laplacian demon to say what it is going to do, since it always does the opposite. The same is true for the robot. In other words, my examples show the reason why the experiment is impossible, without implying that a Laplacian demon is impossible.

We can easily reconstruct my examples to contain an error rate, and nonetheless prediction will be impossible for the same reasons, without implying that anything is indeterminate. For example:

Suppose that the world is such that every tenth time you try to cover a spot, your hand slips off and stops blocking it. I specify every tenth time to show that determinism has nothing to do with this: the setup is completely determinate. In this situation, you are able to indicate the spot where the ball will hit every tenth time, but no more often than that.

Likewise suppose we have f(x) = x+1, with one exception such that f(5) = 5. If we then ask the Laplacian demon (namely ourselves) to provide five x such that the output equals the input, we will not be able to do it in five cases, but we will be able to do it in one. Since this universe (the functional universe) is utterly deterministic, the fact that we cannot present five such cases does not indicate something indeterminate. It just indicates a determinate fact about how the function universe works.

As for the third set, if I understood it correctly you are indeed cherry picking — you are simply selecting the trials where the human made a mistake,

LD’s can’t be mistaken. If they foresee outcome O from initial conditions C, then no mistake can fail to make O come about. But this isn’t my main point, which is simply to repeat what I said to David: cherry picking requires disregarding evidence that goes against your conclusion, but the times when the random number generator and the LD disagree provide no evidence whether LD’s are consistent with our experience of following instructions with some errors.

I said “if I understood it correctly” because the situation was not clearly laid out. I understood the setup to be this: the Laplacian demon writes out fifty letters, A or B, being the letters it sees that I am going to write. It does not show me this series of letters. Instead, a random process outputs a series of letters, A or B, and each time I try to select the opposite letter.

Given this setup, what the Laplacian demon writes always matches what I select. And most of the time, both are the opposite of what was output by the random process. But occasionally I make a mistake, that is, I fail to select the opposite letter, and choose the same letter that the random process chose. In these cases, since the Laplacian demon still knew what was going to happen, the demon’s letter also matches the random process letter, and my letter.

Now, Chastek says, consider only the cases where the demon’s letter is the same as the random process letter. It will turn out that over those cases, I have a 100% failure rate: that is, in every such case I selected the same letter as the random process. According to him, we should consider this surprising, since we would not normally have a 100% failure rate. This is not cherry picking, he says, because “the times when the random number generator and the LD disagree provide no evidence whether LD’s are consistent with our experience of following instructions with some errors.”

The problem with this should be obvious. Let us consider demon #2: he looks at what the person writes, and then writes down the same thing. Is this demon possible? There will be some cases where demon #2 writes down the opposite of what the random process output: those will be the cases where the person did not make a mistake. But there will be other cases where the person makes a mistake. In those cases, what the person writes, and what demon #2 writes, will match the output of the random process. Consider only those cases. The person has a 100% failure rate in those cases. The cases where the random process and demon #2 disagree provide no evidence whether demon #2 is consistent with our experience, so this is not cherry picking. Now it is contrary to our experience to have a 100% failure rate. So demon #2 is impossible.

This result is of course absurd – demon#2 is obviously entirely possible, since otherwise making copies of things would be impossible. This is sufficient to establish that Chastek’s response is mistaken. He is indeed cherry picking: he simply selected the cases where the human made a mistake, and noted that there was a 100% failure rate in those cases.

In other words, we do not need a formal answer to Chastek’s objection to see that there is something very wrong with it; but the formal answer is that the cases where the demon disagrees with the random process do indeed provide some evidence. They question is whether the existence of the demon is consistent with “our experience of following instructions with some errors.” But we cannot have this experience without sometimes following the instructions correctly; being right is part of this experience, just like being wrong. And the cases where the demon disagrees with the random process are cases where we follow the instructions correctly, and such cases provide evidence that the demon is possible.

Chastek provides an additional comment about the case of the dog:

Just a note, one point I am thankful to EU for is the idea that a trained dog might be a good test subject too. If this is right, then the recursive loop might not be from intelligence as such but the intrinsic indeterminism of nature, which we find in one way through (what Aristotle called) matter being present in the initial conditions and the working of the laws and in another through intelligence. But space is opened for one with the allowing of the other, since on either account nature has to allow for teleology.

I was pointing to St. Thomas in my response with the hope that St. Thomas’s position would at least be seen as reasonable; and there is no question that St. Thomas believes that there is no indeterminism whatsoever in the behavior of a dog. If a dog is in the same situation, he believes, it will do exactly the same thing. In any case, Chastek does not address this, so I will not try at this time to establish the fact of St. Thomas’s position.

The main point is that, as we have already shown, the reason it is impossible to predict what the dog will do has nothing to do with indeterminism, since such prediction is impossible even if the dog is infallible, and remains impossible even if the dog has a deterministic error rate.

The comment, “But space is opened for one with the allowing of the other, since on either account nature has to allow for teleology,” may indicate why Chastek is so insistent in his error: in his opinion, if nature is deterministic, teleology is impossible. This is a mistake much like Robin Hanson’s mistake explained in the previous post. But again I will leave this for later consideration.

I will address one last comment:

I agree the physical determinist’s equation can’t be satisfied for all values, and that what makes it possible is the presence of a sort of recursion. But in the context of the experiment this means that the letter on a sheet of paper together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe can never be an initial condition, but I see no reason why this would be the case. Even if I granted their claim that there was some recursive contradiction, it does not arise merely because the letter is given in advance, since the LD could print out the letter in advance just fine if the initial conditions were, say, a test particle flying though empty space toward button A with enough force to push it.

It is true that the contradiction does not arise just because the Laplacian demon writes down the letter. There is no contradiction even in the human case, if the demon does not show it to the human. Nor does anything contrary to our experience happen in such a case. The case which is contrary to our experience is when the demon shows the letter to the person; and this is indeed impossible on account of a recursive contradiction, not because the demon is impossible.

Consider the case of the test particle flying towards button A: it is not a problem for the demon to write down the outcome precisely because what is written has no particular influence, in this case, on the outcome.

But if “writing the letter” means covering the button, as in our example of covering the spot where the ball will hit, then the demon will not be able to write the outcome in advance. And obviously this will not mean there is any indeterminism.

The contradiction comes about because covering the button prevents the button from being pushed. And the contradiction comes about in the human case in exactly the same way: writing a letter causes, via the human’s intention to follow the instructions, the opposite outcome. Again indeterminism has nothing to do with this: the same thing will happen if the human is infallible, or if the human has an error rate which has deterministic causes.

“This means that the letter on a sheet of paper together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe can never be an initial condition.” No, it means that in some of the cases, namely those where the human will be successful in following instructions, the letter with the rest of the universe cannot be an initial condition where the outcome is the same as what is written. While there should be no need to repeat the reasons for this at this point, the reason is that “what is written” is a cause of the opposite outcome, and whether that causality is deterministic or indeterministic has nothing to do with the impossibility. The letter can indeed be an initial condition: but it is an initial condition where the outcome is the opposite of the letter, and the demon knows all this.

Age of Em

This is Robin Hanson’s first book. Hanson gradually introduces his topic:

You, dear reader, are special. Most humans were born before 1700. And of those born after, you are probably richer and better educated than most. Thus you and most everyone you know are special, elite members of the industrial era.

Like most of your kind, you probably feel superior to your ancestors. Oh, you don’t blame them for learning what they were taught. But you’d shudder to hear of many of your distant farmer ancestors’ habits and attitudes on sanitation, sex, marriage, gender, religion, slavery, war, bosses, inequality, nature, conformity, and family obligations. And you’d also shudder to hear of many habits and attitudes of your even more ancient forager ancestors. Yes, you admit that lacking your wealth your ancestors couldn’t copy some of your habits. Even so, you tend to think that humanity has learned that your ways are better. That is, you believe in social and moral progress.

The problem is, the future will probably hold new kinds of people. Your descendants’ habits and attitudes are likely to differ from yours by as much as yours differ from your ancestors. If you understood just how different your ancestors were, you’d realize that you should expect your descendants to seem quite strange. Historical fiction misleads you, showing your ancestors as more modern than they were. Science fiction similarly misleads you about your descendants.

As an example of the kind of past difference that Robin is discussing, even in the fairly recent past, consider this account by William Ewald of a trial from the sixteenth century:

In 1522 some rats were placed on trial before the ecclesiastical court in Autun. They were charged with a felony: specifically, the crime of having eaten and wantonly destroyed some barley crops in the jurisdiction. A formal complaint against “some rats of the diocese” was presented to the bishop’s vicar, who thereupon cited the culprits to appear on a day certain, and who appointed a local jurist, Barthelemy Chassenée (whose name is sometimes spelled Chassanée, or Chasseneux, or Chasseneuz), to defend them. Chassenée, then forty-two, was known for his learning, but not yet famous; the trial of the rats of Autun was to establish his reputation, and launch a distinguished career in the law.

When his clients failed to appear in court, Chassenée resorted to procedural arguments. His first tactic was to invoke the notion of fair process, and specifically to challenge the original writ for having failed to give the rats due notice. The defendants, he pointed out, were dispersed over a large tract of countryside, and lived in many villages; a single summons was inadequate to notify them all. Moreover, the summons was addressed only to some of the rats of the diocese; but technically it should have been addressed to them all.

Chassenée was successful in his argument, and the court ordered a second summons to be read from the pulpit of every local parish church; this second summons now correctly addressed all the local rats, without exception.

But on the appointed day the rats again failed to appear. Chassenée now made a second argument. His clients, he reminded the court, were widely dispersed; they needed to make preparations for a great migration, and those preparations would take time. The court once again conceded the reasonableness of the argument, and granted a further delay in the proceedings. When the rats a third time failed to appear, Chassenée was ready with a third argument. The first two arguments had relied on the idea of procedural fairness; the third treated the rats as a class of persons who were entitled to equal treatment under the law. He addressed the court at length, and successfully demonstrated that, if a person is cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may lawfully refuse to obey the writ. And a journey to court would entail serious perils for his clients. They were notoriously unpopular in the region; and furthermore they were rightly afraid of their natural enemies, the cats. Moreover (he pointed out to the court) the cats could hardly be regarded as neutral in this dispute; for they belonged to the plaintiffs. He accordingly demanded that the plaintiffs be enjoined by the court, under the threat of severe penalties, to restrain their cats, and prevent them from frightening his clients. The court again found this argument compelling; but now the plaintiffs seem to have come to the end of their patience. They demurred to the motion; the court, unable to settle on the correct period within which the rats must appear, adjourned on the question sine die, and judgment for the rats was granted by default.

Most of us would assume at once that this is all nothing but an elaborate joke; but Ewald strongly argues that it was all quite serious. This would actually be worthy of its own post, but I will leave it aside for now. In any case it illustrates the existence of extremely different attitudes even a few centuries ago.

In any event, Robin continues:

New habits and attitudes result less than you think from moral progress, and more from people adapting to new situations. So many of your descendants’ strange habits and attitudes are likely to violate your concepts of moral progress; what they do may often seem wrong. Also, you likely won’t be able to easily categorize many future ways as either good or evil; they will instead just seem weird. After all, your world hardly fits the morality tales your distant ancestors told; to them you’d just seem weird. Complex realities frustrate simple summaries, and don’t fit simple morality tales.

Many people of a more conservative temperament, such as myself, might wish to swap out “moral progress” here with “moral regress,” but the point stands in any case. This is related to our discussions of the effects of technology and truth on culture, and of the idea of irreversible changes.

Robin finally gets to the point of his book:

This book presents a concrete and plausible yet troubling view of a future full of strange behaviors and attitudes. You may have seen concrete troubling future scenarios before in science fiction. But few of those scenarios are in fact plausible; their details usually make little sense to those with expert understanding. They were designed for entertainment, not realism.

Perhaps you were told that fictional scenarios are the best we can do. If so, I aim to show that you were told wrong. My method is simple. I will start with a particular very disruptive technology often foreseen in futurism and science fiction: brain emulations, in which brains are recorded, copied, and used to make artificial “robot” minds. I will then use standard theories from many physical, human, and social sciences to describe in detail what a world with that future technology would look like.

I may be wrong about some consequences of brain emulations, and I may misapply some science. Even so, the view I offer will still show just how troublingly strange the future can be.

I greatly enjoyed Robin’s book, but unfortunately I have to admit that relatively few people will in general. It is easy enough to see the reason for this from Robin’s introduction. Who would expect to be interested? Possibly those who enjoy the “futurism and science fiction” concerning brain emulations; but if Robin does what he set out to do, those persons will find themselves strangely uninterested. As he says, science fiction is “designed for entertainment, not realism,” while he is attempting to answer the question, “What would this actually be like?” This intention is very remote from the intention of the science fiction, and consequently it will likely appeal to different people.

Whether or not Robin gets the answer to this question right, he definitely succeeds in making his approach and appeal differ from those of science fiction.

One might illustrate this with almost any random passage from the book. Here are portions of his discussion of the climate of em cities:

As we will discuss in Chapter 18, Cities section, em cities are likely to be big, dense, highly cost-effective concentrations of computer and communication hardware. How might such cities interact with their surroundings?

Today, computer and communication hardware is known for being especially temperamental about its environment. Rooms and buildings designed to house such hardware tend to be climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibration, dust, and electromagnetic field intensity. Such equipment housing protects it especially well from fire, flood, and security breaches.

The simple assumption is that, compared with our cities today, em cities will also be more climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibrations, dust, and electromagnetic signals. These controls may in fact become city level utilities. Large sections of cities, and perhaps entire cities, may be covered, perhaps even domed, to control humidity, dust, and vibration, with city utilities working to absorb remaining pollutants. Emissions within cities may also be strictly controlled.

However, an em city may contain temperatures, pressures, vibrations, and chemical concentrations that are toxic to ordinary humans. If so, ordinary humans are excluded from most places in em cities for safety reasons. In addition, we will see in Chapter 18, Transport section, that many em city transport facilities are unlikely to be well matched to the needs of ordinary humans.

Cities today are the roughest known kind of terrain, in the sense that cities slow down the wind the most compared with other terrain types. Cities also tend to be hotter than neighboring areas. For example, Las Vegas is 7 ° Fahrenheit hotter in the summer than are surrounding areas. This hotter city effect makes ozone pollution worse and this effect is stronger for bigger cities, in the summer, at night, with fewer clouds, and with slower wind (Arnfield 2003).

This is a mild reason to expect em cities to be hotter than other areas, especially at night and in the summer. However, as em cities are packed full of computing hardware, we shall now see that em cities will  actually be much hotter.

While the book considers a wide variety of topics, e.g. the social relationships among ems, which look quite different from the above passage, the general mode of treatment is the same. As Robin put it, he uses “standard theories” to describe the em world, much as he employs standard theories about cities, about temperature and climate, and about computing hardware in the above passage.

One might object that basically Robin is positing a particular technological change (brain emulations), but then assuming that everything else is the same, and working from there. And there is some validity to this objection. But in the end there is actually no better way to try to predict the future; despite David Hume’s opinion, generally the best way to estimate the future is to say, “Things will be pretty much the same.”

At the end of the book, Robin describes various criticisms. First are those who simply said they weren’t interested: “If we include those who declined to read my draft, the most common complaint is probably ‘who cares?'” And indeed, that is what I would expect, since as Robin remarked himself, people are interested in an entertaining account of the future, not an attempt at a detailed description of what is likely.

Others, he says, “doubt that one can ever estimate the social consequences of technologies decades in advance.” This is basically the objection I mentioned above.

He lists one objection that I am partly in agreement with:

Many doubt that brain emulations will be our next huge technology change, and aren’t interested in analyses of the consequences of any big change except the one they personally consider most likely or interesting. Many of these people expect traditional artificial intelligence, that is, hand-coded software, to achieve broad human level abilities before brain emulations appear. I think that past rates of progress in coding smart software suggest that at previous rates it will take two to four centuries to achieve broad human level abilities via this route. These critics often point to exciting recent developments, such as advances in “deep learning,” that they think make prior trends irrelevant.

I don’t think Robin is necessarily mistaken in regard to his expectations about “traditional artificial intelligence,” although he may be, and I don’t find myself uninterested by default in things that I don’t think the most likely. But I do think that traditional artificial intelligence is more likely than his scenario of brain emulations; more on this below.

There are two other likely objections that Robin does not include in this list, although he does touch on them elsewhere. First, people are likely to say that the creation of ems would be immoral, even if it is possible, and similarly that the kinds of habits and lives that he describes would themselves be immoral. On the one hand, this should not be a criticism at all, since Robin can respond that he is simply describing what he thinks is likely, not saying whether it should happen or not; on the other hand, it is in fact obvious that Robin does not have much disapproval, if any, of his scenario. The book ends in fact by calling attention to this objection:

The analysis in this book suggests that lives in the next great era may be as different from our lives as our lives are from farmers’ lives, or farmers’ lives are from foragers’ lives. Many readers of this book, living industrial era lives and sharing industrial era values, may be disturbed to see a forecast of em era descendants with choices and life styles that appear to reject many of the values that they hold dear. Such readers may be tempted to fight to prevent the em future, perhaps preferring a continuation of the industrial era. Such readers may be correct that rejecting the em future holds them true to their core values.

But I advise such readers to first try hard to see this new era in some detail from the point of view of its typical residents. See what they enjoy and what fills them with pride, and listen to their criticisms of your era and values. This book has been designed in part to assist you in such a soul-searching examination. If after reading this book, you still feel compelled to disown your em descendants, I cannot say you are wrong. My job, first and foremost, has been to help you see your descendants clearly, warts and all.

Our own discussions of the flexibility of human morality are relevant. The creatures Robin is describing are in many ways quite different from humans, and it is in fact very appropriate for their morality to differ from human morality.

A second likely objection is that Robin’s ems are simply impossible, on account of the nature of the human mind. I think that this objection is mistaken, but I will leave the details of this explanation for another time. Robin appears to agree with Sean Carroll about the nature of the mind, as can be seen for example in this post. Robin is mistaken about this, for the reasons suggested in my discussion of Carroll’s position. Part of the problem is that Robin does not seem to understand the alternative. Here is a passage from the linked post on Overcoming Bias:

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?

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.

There is a false dichotomy here, and it is the same one that C.S. Lewis falls into when he says, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” And in general it is like the error of the pre-Socratics, that if a thing has some principles which seem sufficient, it can have no other principles, failing to see that there are several kinds of cause, and each can be complete in its own way. And perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, since I said this discussion would be for later, but the objection that Robin’s scenario is impossible is mistaken in exactly the same way, and for the same reason: people believe that if a “materialistic” explanation could be given of human behavior in the way that Robin describes, then people do not truly reason, make choices, and so on. But this is simply to adopt the other side of the false dichotomy, much like C.S. Lewis rejects the possibility of causes for our beliefs.

One final point. I mentioned above that I see Robin’s scenario as less plausible than traditional artificial intelligence. I agree with Tyler Cowen in this post. This present post is already long enough, so again I will leave a detailed explanation for another time, but I will remark that Robin and I have a bet on the question.

Vaguely Trading Away Truth

Robin Hanson asks his readers about religion:

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religious people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

Look, Robin is saying, maybe you think that religions aren’t true. But the fact is that it isn’t very plausible that you care that much about truth anyway. So why not be religious anyway, regardless of the truth, since there are known benefits to this?

A few days after the above post, Robin points out some evidence that stories tend to distort a person’s beliefs about the world, and then says:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

We have discussed in an earlier post some of the reasons why stories can distort a person’s opinions about the world.

It is very plausible to me that Robin’s proposed explanation, namely status seeking, does indeed exercise a great deal of influence among his target audience. But this would not tend to be a very conscious process, and would likely be expressed consciously in other ways. A more likely conscious explanation would be this representative comment from one of Robin’s readers:

There is a clear difference in choosing to be religious and choosing to partake in a story. By being religious, you profess belief in some set of ideas on the nature of the world. If you read a fictional story, there is no belief. Religions are supposed to be taken as fact. It is non-fiction, whether it’s true or not. Fictional stories are known to not be true. You don’t sacrifice any of a love for truth as you’ve put it by digesting the contents of a fictional story, because none of the events of the story are taken as fact, whereas religious texts are to be taken as fact. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When reading fictional stories, you know that the events aren’t real, but entertain the circumstances created in the story to be able to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. This is the point of the stories, and they thereby aid in the search for truth, as we have to ask ourselves questions about how we would relate in similar situations. The authors own ideas shown in the story may not be what you personally believe in, but the educated mind can entertain the ideas and not believe in them, increasing our knowledge of the truth by opening ourselves up to others viewpoints. Religions are made to be believed without any real semblance of proof, there is no entertaining the idea, only acceptance of it. This is where truth falls out the window, as where there is no proof, the truth cannot be ascertained.

The basic argument would be that if a non-religious person simply decides to be religious, he is choosing to believe something he thinks to be false, which is against the love of truth. But if the person reads a story, he is not choosing to believe anything he thinks to be false, so he is not going against the love of truth.

For Robin, the two situations are roughly equivalent, because there are known reasons why reading fiction will distort one’s beliefs about the world, even if we do not know in advance the particular false beliefs we will end up adopting, or the particular false beliefs that we will end up thinking more likely, or the true beliefs that we might lose or consider less likely.

But there is in fact a difference. This is more or less the difference between accepting the real world and accepting the world of Omelas. In both cases evils are accepted, but in one case they are accepted vaguely, and in the other clearly and directly. In a similar way, it would be difficult for a person to say, “I am going to start believing this thing which I currently think to be false, in order to get some benefit from it,” and much easier to say, “I will do this thing which will likely distort my beliefs in some vague way, in order to get some benefit from it.”

When accepting evil for the sake of good, we are more inclined to do it in this vague way in general. But this is even more the case when we trade away truth in particular for the sake of other things. In part this is precisely because of the more apparent absurdity of saying, “I will accept the false as true for the sake of some benefit,” although Socrates would likely respond that it would be equally absurd to say, “I will do the evil as though it were good for the sake of some benefit.”

Another reason why this is more likely, however, is that it is easier for a person to tell himself that he is not giving up any truth at all; thus the author of the comment quoted above asserted that reading fiction does not lead to any false beliefs whatsoever. This is related to what I said in the post here: trading the truth for something else, even vaguely, implies less love of truth than refusing the trade, and consequently the person may not care enough to accurately discern whether or not they are losing any truth.

Technology and Culture

The last two posts have effectively answered the question raised about Scott Alexander’s account of cultural decline. What could be meant by calling some aspects of culture “less compatible with modern society?” Society tends to change over time, and some of those changes are humanly irreversible. It is entirely possible, and in fact common, for some of those irreversible changes to stand in tension with various elements of culture. This will necessarily tend to cause cultural decay at least with respect to those elements, and often with respect to other elements of culture as well, since the various aspects of culture are related.

This happens in a particular way with changes in technology, although technology is not the only driver of such irreversible change.

It would be extremely difficult for individuals to opt out of the use of of various technologies. For example, it would be quite difficult for Americans to give up the use of plumbing and heating, and a serious attempt to do so might lead to illness or death in many cases. And it would be still more difficult to give up the use of clothes, money, and language. Attempting to do so, assuming that one managed to preserve one’s physical life, would likely lead to imprisonment or other forms of institutionalization (which would make it that much more difficult to abandon the use of clothes.)

Someone might well respond here, “Wait, why are you bringing up clothes, money, and language as examples of technology?” Clothes and money seem more like cultural institutions than technology in the first place; and language seems to be natural to humans.

I have already spoken of language as a kind of technology. And with regard to clothes and money, it is even more evident that in the concrete forms in which they exist in our world today they are tightly intertwined with various technologies. The cash used in the United States depends on mints and printing presses, actual mechanical technologies. And if one wishes to buy something without cash, this usually depends on still more complex technology. Similar things are true of the clothes that we wear.

I concede, of course, that the use of these things is different from the use of the machines that make them, or as in the case of credit cards, support their use, although there is less distinction in the latter case. But I deliberately brought up things which look like purely cultural institutions in order to note their relationship with technology, because we are discussing the manner in which technological change can result in cultural change. Technology and culture are tightly intertwined, and can never be wholly separated.

Sarah Perry discusses this (the whole post is worth reading):

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.

The more powerful the technology, the more unpredictable its effects will be. A technological advance in the sense of a de-condensation is by its nature something that does not fit in the existing order. The world will need to reshape itself to fit. Technology is a bad carver, not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense of Socrates:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about … Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”

Plato, Phaedrus, 265D, quoted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander.

The most powerful technological advances break limbs in half. They cut up the world in an entirely new way, inconceivable in the previous order.

Now someone, arguing much in Chesterton’s vein, might say that this does not have to happen. If a technology is damaging in this way, then just don’t use it. The problem is that often one does not have a realistic choice not to use it, as in my examples above. And much more can one fail to have a choice not to interact with people who use the new technology, and interacting with those people will itself change the way that life works. And as Robin Hanson noted, there is not some human global power that decides whether or not a technology gets to be introduced into human society or not. This happens rather by the uncoordinated and unplanned decisions of individuals.

And this is sufficient to explain the tendency towards cultural decline. The constant progress of technology results, and results of necessity, in constant cultural decline. And thus we fools understand why the former days were better than these.

Turning Back the Clock

Let’s look again at the center of Chesterton’s argument about turning back the clock:

There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

Of course, one can physically turn a clock back. But as Chesterton notes, the idea that “you can’t put the clock back,” is a metaphor, not a literal statement. The metaphor is based off the idea that you can’t time travel to the past, and this is literally true, fortunately or unfortunately. The one who uses the metaphor intends to assert something stronger, however, and it is this stronger thing that Chesterton wishes to refute when he says, “Society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.”

Yes, the human finger can turn back the clock. But what corresponds to “the human finger” in the case of society? Who or what has the power to reconstruct society upon any plan that has ever existed?

As soon as we ask the question, the answer is clear. Society has never been constructed upon any plan whatsoever; so neither can it be reconstructed upon any plan whatsoever. As Robin Hanson puts it, “no one rules the world,” so there is no way to construct society according to a plan in the first place. In particular, Hanson remarks regarding technology:

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

Chesterton is free, as he says, to propose anything he likes, including bringing back the stage coaches. But we are also free to propose that the world would be better off if horses walked on their hind legs. The plans will meet with approximately equal success: getting the world to abandon automobiles and adopt stage coaches will not be much easier than getting horses to follow our suggestions.

Indeed, it is not impossible to bring back the stage coaches in the way that “bringing back last Friday” is impossible. But neither is it impossible for horses to walk on their hind legs in this way. Nonetheless both are impossible in the sense that physically turning back a clock is possible. Namely, no human being can either bring back the stage coaches or convince horses to walk on their hind legs, even though one can turn back a clock. One might have occasional success with either plan, but not overall success.