There just has to be something more, you know?

post by Academian · 2010-03-24T00:38:44.899Z · score: 13 (30 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 79 comments

A non-materialist thought experiment.

Okay, so you don't exactly believe in the God of the Abrahamic scriptures verbatim who punishes and sets things on fire and lives in the sky.  But still, there just has to be something more than just matter and energy, doesn't there?  You just feel it.  If you don't, try to remember when you did, or at least empathize with someone you know who does.  After all, you have a mind, you think, you feel — you feel for crying out loud — and you must realize that can't be made entirely of things like carbon and hydrogen atoms, which are basically just dots with other dots swirling around them.  Okay, maybe they're waves, but at least sometimes they act like dots.  Start with a few swirling dots… now add more… keep going, until it equals love.  It just doesn't seem to capture it.

In fact, now that you think about it, you know your mind exists.  It's right there: it's you.  Your "experiencing self".  Maybe you call it a spirit or soul; I don't want to fix too rigid a description in case it wouldn't quite match your own.  But cogito-ergo-sum, it's definitely there!  By contrast, this particle business is just a mathematical concept — a very smart one, of course — thought of by scientists to explain and predict a bunch of carefully designed and important measurements.  Yes, it does that extremely well, and you're not downplaying that.  But that doesn't explain how you see blue, or taste strawberry — something you have direct access to.  Particles might not even exist, if that means anything to say.  It might just be that observation itself follows a mathematical pattern that we can understand better by visualizing dots and waves.  They might not be real.

So actually, your mind or spirit — that thing you feel, that you — is much more certain an extant than scientific "matter".  That must be something very important to understand!  Certainly you can tell your mind has different parts to it: hearing, seeing, reasoning, moving, remembering, empathizing, picturing, yearning… When you think of all the things you can remember alone — or could remember — the complexity of all that data is mindbogglingly vast.  Imagine the task of actually having to take it all apart and describe it completely… it could take aeons…

Imagine then, for a moment, that you could isolate just one part: some relatively insignificant portion of your vast mind or spirit.  Let's say a single, second-long experience of walking with a friend; certainly minute compared to the entirety of your life.  But still, an extremely complex object.  Think about all you are perceiving in that second...  your mind is incredible!  No, I'm not talking about your brain, I'm talking about your experiencing self, your mind, your essence, however you might think about that experiencing entity.  Now imagine isolating some small aspect of that memory with your friend, discarding the massively detailed experiences that are your vision, your sense of balance, how hungry you are for nachos… Say, a concerned awareness of your friend's emotional state at that instant.  This too is a highly complex object, so it too has parts, which I may not be able to describe in finer granularity, but they're there.  Now let's say you're some kind of super-introspective savant, who can sense the conceptual fragments of still finer, sharper aspects of this…

I'm doing my best here to approach what "a tiny piece of your soul" might mean.  But no matter; perhaps you have a better idea of what that is.  In any case, suppose you somehow isolated this tiny fraction of a mind or spirit, and took it out of the context of all the countless other details we didn't look at.  Now it's disconnected from all that other stuff: vision, balance, nachos, nuances of empathy…

Suppose you managed to somehow look at this object, by which I mean observe it in some way — It is part of your mind, after all — and consider a possible outcome. So that we're picturing roughly the same thing, imagine that as you observed it, this piece of your soul is not writhing and thrashing about spasmodically, but appears in fact calm, and focused on its task.  Suppose it moved regularly, like maybe in a circle, for example.  How curious it could turn out to be!  What would we call this tiny, almost infinitesimal speck of your mind?

I say we call it "electron".


Like many readers of this blog, I am a materialist.  Like many still, I was not always.  Long ago, the now-rhetorical ponderings in the preceding post in fact delivered the fatal blow to my nagging suspicion that, somehow, materialism just isn't enough…

Finish reading in: The two insights of materialism

(these were originally a single post, so some comments below refer to the sequel.)

79 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-03-24T15:58:45.854Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Expecting physics to explain consciousness is like expecting lambda calculus to explain Microsoft Word. On one level, it does (you are a pattern in a simple lawful process that we call 'reality' or 'physics'), on the other, it's not supposed to. Jumping from apparent confusion to postulating new substances is a basic error.

comment by taiyo · 2010-03-24T13:39:34.378Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to offer what I think might be objections to this post. When I imagine myself as a non-reductionist and non-materialist reading this post (I am, in fact, neither of these things), I believe I find myself unconvinced by this thought experiment. I suppose I'm not sure convincing this hypothetical me is the goal... nonetheless here are my hypothetical objections:

  1. When I introspect on my thought processes, I am using my mind. I might imagine that I can isolate a "specks of consciousness" just as you ask me to do, but this is a fact about my state of mind which does not necessarily correlate with reality. Perhaps my consciousness is indecomposable. It feels that way to me. What it seems like you are asking me to do in this thought experiment is build a model of consciousness in which consciousness is already similar to matter in that it is decomposable. This seems like question begging! I need more evidence that shows that such reductionism is actually possible.

  2. In any case, suppose that I put my reductionist hat on, and examine my model of decomposable consciousness. Calling infinitesimal specks of my consciousness electrons isn't helpful to me. It also feels like question begging since it seems to assume that my consciousness is made of the same stuff as ordinary matter. If you want to call these specks of mind electrons, feel free. But labeling something is a fact about maps, not about the territory. I need evidence of this which speaks directly about the phenomenon of consciousness.

  3. My perceptions or feelings may sometimes lead me astray, but often times they work really well! For example, when I perceive a rock flying at my face, I do much better when I trust my instincts and feelings than when I don't. How can I tell that my feelings that there is something extraphysical about my consciousness or that the only right way to think about consciousness is by taking a holistic approach are, in fact, wrong?

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T13:59:44.447Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps my consciousness is indecomposable.

There is a big difference between decomposing consciousness into its constituent fragments, vs. simply identifying the degrees of freedom in your conscious experience. Drilling down into your introspection and identifying the smallest specks of experience which you can think of as being details of your consciousness is doing the latter. You can go about modifying any of these tiny details more or less independently, but your consciousness is still a self-contained object.

It's only after you isolate a single electron that you can talk about what its conscious experience would look and feel like.

comment by taiyo · 2010-03-25T18:27:48.351Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have no problem letting decomposition refer to details of mind that can be adjusted independently of others. I can imagine such things. But I do not know if such things actually exist in my mind.

I have a math background so I tend to think a bit like that. Here's a silly analogy: consider a linear transformation on a vector space. Sometimes there are invariant subspaces of the vector space called eigenspaces, but sometimes there are not. In this case, you cannot just analyze the effect of a linear transformation by examining a smaller subspace of the vector space since the transformation sort of forces all subspaces to interact with one another.

I can imagine that I adjust some detail of my mind's inner workings and I might imagine that this detail is somehow independent from all the other details. But perhaps, in reality, my mind has no eigenspaces. Perhaps adjusting one detail necessarily has an effect on all the other details of my mind. I can't really understand my consciousness unless I look at the whole thing at once.

Maybe this is embodied in the qualification you made: "more or less independently". Seems fair. But this is the sort of objection I think a non-reductionist might have.

They might also reject the notion of an electron having a conscious experience (as do I) for reasons mentioned elsewhere in the comments section.

comment by Nisan · 2010-03-24T20:01:49.678Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The decomposability or granularity of experience may be illusory. (This is the first point in taiyo's comment.) But even if one can sensibly pick out a tiny piece of one's experience, I don't expect it to be an electron.

Analogously, the tiny piece of my computer's function that makes the cursor blink at a steady rate is definitely a physical process, but it's not an electron.

comment by JanetK · 2010-03-24T12:13:20.900Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I want to try to get away from the idea of jumping from mind to physics. The middle ground is more firm. The brain is a biological organ with a function. The stomach is a similar organ with a digestive function. The heart is a similar organ with a circulation function. The function (or one of them) of the brain is mind. Mind is not a thing, it is a biological function. If I extract an electron from my heart, I do not have a bit of circulation. There is no magic here. Take the physics and move to chemistry, take them and move to biochemistry and biophysics, take them and move to biology in its sub-sciences like physiology, genetics, development etc. and then to neuroscience. There is not a shortcut from electrons to thoughts. Materialism does not require that jump.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T13:42:47.541Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you taboo the word 'function', all you're left with is an explanation of what the brain does. The question is whether such an explanation exists which can account for our conscious experiences. The kinds of materialistic explanations which tend to be favored here do not account for conscious experience; at best, it's bolted on as a (non-materialistic!) afterthought, or handwaved away as magical and spiritualistic "emergence". This is not a satisfactory situation.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T14:15:20.728Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What kinds of explanations are you talking about that are unsatisfactory? Most of us have only been issuing promissory notes based on a confidence that there is such an explanation, not building that explanation. (Hint: anyone who says "emergence" and isn't being wrong in doing so is declaring that they aren't explaining it yet.)

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T14:44:29.384Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of us have only been issuing promissory notes based on a confidence that there is such an explanation,

That does clarify some things, but why are so many of you bothered by the claim that conscious experience may in fact be a basic physical phenomenon? It seems that many physicalists here are putting up semantic stopsigns to compensate for the fact that they don't really have an explanation yet.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T15:11:20.780Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. If consciousness were basic, what would that rule out?* Nothing, so far as I can see. It's the same kind of 'explanation' as "phlogiston".

(A lot of this is connected with the MAtMQ sequence, if you're wondering where I'm coming from on this.)

* Edit: Quick summary of the link: this is equivalent to "what would it imply" - logically, A -> B and A -> ~~B are the same - but because it's much easier to fool yourself into thinking that A implies an observation than that it prevents one. The latter is usually only managed by theories which actually explain.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T19:17:59.481Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a mysterious answer to a mysterious question.

Um, no. Subjective experience and phenomenology are hardly 'mysterious questions': they have been described in reasonable detail by many philosophers.

If consciousness were basic, what would that rule out?

First of all, it would rule out all sort of complexity in the 'bridging law' between physics and subjective experience. In the absence of deeper explanations, postulating a basic substance keeps the complexity of our models at a minimum, per Occam's razor/Solomonoff induction.

Secondarily, it would be a truly "materialistic" explanation (or rather, "D_brane-istic" or "quantum_graph-istic" or whatever the fundamental level of reality is) which is a useful starting point for theories with deeper explanatory power. To flip your question around: if consciousness were "Emergent!", would that rule out anything?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-03-25T00:21:53.485Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Subjective experience and phenomenology are hardly 'mysterious questions': they have been described in reasonable detail by many philosophers.

I don't think you can possibly mean what I think you mean. Surely you don't mean that subjective experience is not mysterious.

Maybe you mean that the questions are not ill-formed?

comment by bogus · 2010-03-25T00:31:49.491Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What I mean is that we can tell what a reasonable answer could look like, since we're not looking at a sealed black box.

From what we know, it seems that quantum monism can set a rather high standard of reasonableness, even though it might not be the correct answer to the subjective experience question.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T19:31:51.400Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Consciousness emerges from physics" rules out:

  1. A conscious entity performing calculations faster than a mathematical computer can, given the same physical resources*;

  2. Consciousness being removed without altering the material;

  3. Consciousness appearing without the underlying physical substrate of a proper kind;

  4. Consciousness violating conservation of energy, the lightspeed limit, the second law of thermodynamics, ...

Again, I ask: what observations (don't talk about "bridging laws" - those are on the map) are ruled out by declaring consciousness to be fundamental?

* This may include quantum computers, for example - if a conscious entity can do PP-class) problems in polynomial time, that does not yet rule out physical substrate, as a purely physical machine can theoretically do that.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T19:46:09.609Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In case it isn't clear, I agree that consciousness arises from physics. What I'm saying is that subjective experience is basic enough that we should expect it to be "on the territory" in some reasonably straightforward way. This is what materialism means. "Emergent" explanations of consciousness do not do this: they place subjective experience at the wrong level and postulate extremely complex bridging laws as a result.

Note that my argument does not apply to phlogiston or elan vital, since fire and life are not basic elements of perception. (It might apply to caloric fluid though, if we didn't know any better about how our heat perception works.)

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T20:31:21.603Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your comment has induced me to reread the thread, which leads me to believe we've been talking past each other to some extent. That said, I think we still disagree in two places.

First, I disagree with this:

It seems that many physicalists here are putting up semantic stopsigns to compensate for the fact that they don't really have an explanation yet.

and, second, I deny the implications of this:

[...] why are so many of you bothered by the claim that conscious experience may in fact be a basic physical phenomenon?

Let me highlight two claims that I would make which drive this disagreement:

  1. The present state of evidence strongly suggests (p > 0.99)* that consciousness, like combustion, is a high-level phenomenon which, in theory, can be completely described by an explanation not in terms of consciousness.

  2. The overwhelming majority of physicalists active on LessWrong deny that "emergence" is a sufficient explanation of consciousness.

Please let me know if you disagree with either or both, or if there is some other significant claim on which we disagree, and we can resume from there.

* If you wish to claim that I am understating the strength of the evidence, at least grant that I am not overstating it.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T21:31:37.992Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(See also my reply to thomblake above)

The present state of evidence strongly suggests (p > 0.99)* that consciousness, like combustion, is a high-level phenomenon which, in theory, can be completely described by an explanation not in terms of consciousness.

You can get away with modeling consciousness as a high-level phenomenon, if you disregard subjective experience as unimportant. If there's even a small probability to the contrary, a "high-level" theory will blow your complexity budget.

The overwhelming majority of physicalists active on LessWrong deny that "emergence" is a sufficient explanation of consciousness.

They can deny this to their heart's content, but the mind treats words as nodes in a Bayesian causal graph. Using words such as "emergent" is enough to shift the frame of the debate from "let's explain consciousness!" to "let's explain emergence! er, um... never mind that". This seems extremely pernicious.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T22:19:50.432Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am at a point where I can see little useful to say. First: I disagree with every sentence in your comment that is not (a) "See also my reply to thomblake above" or (b) a direct quote from me. Second, it appears to me that there is a large inferential distance between us - large enough that I would expect an entire sequence would be required to bridge it. (I would have expected the MAtMQ sequence to do so, but there is evidently something else not addressed there.)

Do you want to continue the discussion, knowing that the only models we can expect to improve are our models of each other?

comment by thomblake · 2010-03-24T20:35:36.093Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Emergent" explanations of consciousness do not do this: they place subjective experience at the wrong level and postulate extremely complex bridging laws as a result.

No they don't; 'bridging laws' are only necessary if you're some sort of dualist. Regular, nonmysterious emergence doesn't require any special laws at all, just like you don't need any extra rules to get gliders from Conway's game of life.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T20:53:16.414Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The 'bridging laws' I am talking about are intended to bridge between physics and subjective experience as the basic element of our perception. If you want to deny that subjective experience is important, feel free to do this. Just don't expect most non-physicalists to take you seriously.

you don't need any extra rules to get gliders from Conway's game of life.

Of course you do: a glider-recognition algorithm is a pretty complex set of rules. And you need a glider-recognition algorithm if you want to get "gliders!" as opposed to "wow, pretty blinkenlights!"

comment by wnoise · 2010-03-24T23:26:08.722Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You need that to recognize, and draw a line around the category "gliders". To exhibit gliders you don't. The analogous thing with physics and minds is that we don't need to add anything to physics to get minds, but we need a heavy theory of "minds as implemented in neurons as implemented on biology as implemented on chemistry as implemented on physics" to usefully talk about them.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T23:36:34.718Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You need that to recognize, and draw a line around the category "gliders". To exhibit gliders you don't.

What's the difference?

(Obviously, you could have a simpler ruleset which failed to recognize all gliders/minds. But then you would be moving away from "Emergence!" and towards a simpler theory of "recognized instances".)

comment by Strange7 · 2010-03-24T23:39:47.125Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's the difference?

Remove the complicated glider-recognition algorithm and the things it's designed to recognize will still be there.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T23:46:31.084Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Remove the complicated glider-recognition algorithm and the things it's designed to recognize will still be there.

But you will be unable to exhibit them without adding the algorithm right back. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T23:59:20.183Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is perfectly possible for a Conway's-Life universe to contain a glider without containing anything that can identify a glider, either within it or within its fundamental physics (i.e. source code). Despite this, if the pattern

XX
X X
X

should appear in the grid on one particular generation, if no other live cells intrude, the pattern will appear again one square northwest from before four generations later.

Likewise, a tree falling in the forest with noone around will create acoustic vibrations, even if it creates no auditory experience.

comment by BenAlbahari · 2010-03-24T17:22:32.996Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you mean when you suggest consciousness is a "basic physical phenomenon"? The handwave may lie in the question you give to the materialist, not the answer the materialist gives to your question.

comment by JanetK · 2010-03-25T09:59:45.448Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes indeed, mind is what the brain does - and mind includes consciousness. I will give a picture, but I do not believe that this is the explanation as there are many such explanations - it is just an illustration of how it might be so as to show that such things are possible. Suppose - the brain does the work of perception, and goal directed motor planning etc. and then creates a model that predicts what the incoming data will be in a fraction of a second. It takes a fraction of a second (same fraction) to do this. It then compares the model with what is coming in and makes corrections to the model based on errors in its prediction. The model is stored in short-term memory to assist in the construction of the next frame of the model and the more permanent memory a little later. This model is shared by all the parts of the brain that require it to do their work (more of less the whole brain). The model is involved in predictive monitoring, sharing of information and memory storage. How would this 'feel' any different from conscious experience? Experiments in neuroscience have given evidence of the movie-like frames, the prediction, the link to memory, the periodic synchronous communication across the brain etc. This is not handwaving but science. And there are other just as reasonable ways to envisage the evidence.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-03-24T07:48:37.191Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If a "materialist" believes that the problem of consciousness can be solved by current physics plus vague "complexity" (rather than new physics), then I don't know if I'm a "materialist" or not, and this post doesn't convince me one way or the other. Am I alone in thinking this is all just hand-waving?

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T10:12:59.606Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post wasn't about solving the problem of consciousness, but accepting that the physical sciences indeed studies pieces of it. Thanks for sharing your differing impression of it; enough feedback like this will no doubt result in a revision someday!

comment by simplicio · 2010-03-24T08:03:51.162Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do not believe the intent was to argue directly for materialism; rather, it was to throw some light on the psychological counterintuitiveness of same.

comment by Hook · 2010-03-24T12:44:02.193Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

When we talk about the states of a microprocessor, what we care about are the contents of the registers, the cache, and the instructions in the pipeline. I'm not certain about the gigahertz level processors of today, but for the processors of 20 years ago, these states are completely stable in terms of changing the placement of one electron with non-relativistic energy levels.

Those processors operated at tens of megahertz. Are 100 Hz neurons so much more sensitive that the placement of a single electron has any effect on the mind states we care about?

comment by simplicio · 2010-03-24T08:00:30.555Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What would we call this tiny, almost infinitesimal speck of your mind?

I say we call it "electron"…

I would like to clarify what you mean here. I think you're saying that any given mind-state is ultimately the result of 10^n particle movements, so that some "fraction" of that mind-state is in principle traceable to only one particle - say, an electron - moving. Is that right?

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T15:14:22.686Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep, but with "in principle" in capitals, and the words "ultimately" and "result of'" removed, because I think they break a symmetry in relating the two notions. A nuance, perhaps, but I want to be careful what words I put in my mouth, heheh. I'd prefer to say that a mind-state and 10^n electrons moving just-so are the same object.

comment by simplicio · 2010-03-24T07:34:55.724Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Brilliantly done! :)

Yes, I think the major hurdle is that people expect an account of mind as arising from matter to somehow feel intuitive, or to be easily picturable.

Which is as unreasonable as, say, expecting a psych profile of a murderer to be so good that it makes you murder somebody.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T09:45:39.873Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, people are in fact quite content with psych profiles as they are today, even though these profiles cannot cause us to share the murderer's brain state. What we might expect to learn from a good psych profile is how being a murderer would feel like in terms of the degrees of freedom which make up our conscious experiences. Emergentist theories of mind cannot explain why this is the case; quantum monism can, at least in principle.

This doesn't mean quantum monism is right, but yes, the actual explanation of consciousness is likely to be at least as intuitive to both physicists and common folks.

comment by taw · 2010-03-24T06:01:45.198Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Please, start with a tl;dr summary before writing such huge blocks of text. There's a reason every research paper starts with an abstract.

comment by Morendil · 2010-03-24T09:22:58.052Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Better yet, when revising, don't forget to cut. The latter portion of this is quite good (starting around "Like many readers"), that whole intro could probably be scrapped without hurting the main part.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2010-03-24T11:44:46.271Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree. The article is meant to be persuasive to nonmaterialists. The intro makes it clear that the author really understands and sympathizes with why someone would find it hard to credit materialism. That's an effective way to get the reader to want to hear the rest of the argument.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T14:25:17.150Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, that was my idea. So, respecting the symmetric difference of the audiences who would appreciate each half, I'm making the second half its own post. Thanks again to everyone for the input.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T12:21:09.195Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you, and I'm on it. The first half is really for a smaller audience...

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-03-24T01:47:10.279Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does neurology presently explain cognitive biases, or allow for memory restoration? I'd like to see some examples of such cool stuff.

I don't relate to your inspirational material, but I liked the analysis.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T14:32:29.747Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the input; I'm splitting the post, and I'll include some links in the follow up :)

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2010-03-24T01:44:45.959Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm doing my best here to approach what "a tiny piece of your soul" might mean. But no matter; perhaps you have a better idea of what that is. In any case, suppose you somehow isolated this tiny fraction of mind or spirit, and took it out of the context of all the countless other details we didn't look at. Now it's disconnected from all that other stuff: vision, balance, nachos, nuances of empathy…Given modern science, there is something more you can say about a particle besides the geometry and equations that describe it, something which connects it to the direct, cogito-ergo-sum style knowledge we all enjoy: whatever it is, a particle is a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a you. Yes, you, your essence. Yes, science can now describe, in more or less complete detail, a one thousand-trillion-trillionth of a "soul".

Um...originally I thought this argument was skipping over the whole "how do particles lead to conscious experience" issue, but looking over it again I think I detect a hint of panpsychism - that all particles are conscious and the fact that you're conscious is an effect of the particles that make you up. If that was your intent, it definitely deserves a more complete treatment than a few sentences buried in an article about convincing nonmaterialists. If that wasn't your intent, how does this explain the apparent gap between physical matter and conscious experience at all?

comment by Rain · 2010-03-24T02:34:10.631Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it would be nice if you could clear up that whole "what is consciousness" thing for us.

I do think the use of words like "soul" and "essence" can create too much ambiguity about what's being described, considering their loaded history.

I also like bogdanb's correction on the topic.

comment by Clippy · 2010-03-24T16:15:02.638Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There doesn't have to be anything more. (I certainly don't require "more" for my existence to be justified.)

Also, I know.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T01:13:28.564Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. Mind if I bounce this off some of my Internet peeps? I'm curious as to how people outside this rather eccentric community would react.

(Granted, "my Internet peeps" is a rather eccentric community of its own - just separate from this one.)

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T10:26:56.394Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's the idea!

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T14:05:54.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

...except that I wanted to link to what I had read, and parts of the article I thought were critical were then deleted. I would have preferred you not tell me to link it if you were still allowing yourself to perform major edits.

Edit: Jack quoted one of the critical missing concepts before it was deleted.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T14:18:05.870Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, many apologies... I hadn't been planning on significant further edits. Anyway, the hope is that now you will be able to link directly to the part that interests you.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T14:21:50.103Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The part that interested me was both parts together. I upvoted it before the edits, but butchered like this, I am about one trivial impetus from downvoting. Primarily because the way it stands, it sounds like it means that "electrons" are "conscious" and other such woo.

Edit: I've decided not to downvote it, but I'm still dissatisfied with the way you've handled this.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T15:28:19.106Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The second half is re-posted, with a clear lead in to it at the bottom of the first, to guard against "woo". I decided this was the best compromise between unity and requiring people to wade through an introduction that doesn't serve them (see other comments by taw, Morendil, Jonathan_Graehl ... ).

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T19:05:01.513Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a pretty good compromise - I'll leave it there.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-25T00:49:19.343Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why does the link open in a new window? This is rude behavior for a blog post to exhibit.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T12:42:16.243Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The two halves of this post, as originally written, were indended for different (but overlapping) audiences.

This was not wise. I'm splitting it now, and the second half should be more interesting after some revision.

Thanks to everyone for very helpful comments!

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T12:51:31.503Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A note in the original post would be appropriate.

comment by Academian · 2010-03-24T12:55:26.864Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Will do.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T12:09:02.618Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hullo! Where'd the second half go? There was good stuff there!

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-24T04:17:25.677Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do electric and magnetic fields actually exist, or are they simply a mathematical description of how charged particles move in the presence of other charged particles?

(As it turns out, the fact that Maxwell's equations describe light entirely in terms of said fields provide a good reason to believe the former over the latter.)

comment by Rain · 2010-03-24T02:44:44.699Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a conviction, physics need not claim that "dots and waves are all there is", but rather, that all there is can be described on analogy with dots and waves.

I found this a very useful statement.

And then the more I thought about it, I lost why it was special. I'm not sure why that happened, or what it means. Perhaps a reversion to my dark side. If so, that was faster than I would have thought.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-24T04:17:57.443Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do electric and magnetic fields actually exist, or are they simply a mathematical description of how charged particles move in the presence of other charged particles?

(As it turns out, the fact that Maxwell's equations describe light entirely in terms of said fields provide a good reason to believe the former over the latter.)

comment by Jack · 2010-03-24T04:21:25.547Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do electric and magnetic fields actually exist, or are they simply a mathematical description of how charged particles move in the presence of other charged particles?

I don't think there is a meaningful difference between these two alternatives. What distinction do you have in mind?

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-24T04:32:58.138Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree; there really isn't a difference.

But on the other hand...

comment by rosyatrandom · 2010-03-24T02:00:23.556Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think a good term for what I believe in might be 'abstractionism'; essentially, I believe in all possible things, and all entities existing in all possible contexts.

From this perspective, matter, mind and mathematics are all the same kind of stuff: patterns. The mind is a pattern than can be abstracted from processes functioning to solve problems which, at a high level, implement our thoughts. Those processes can be performed by brains running in the kinds of universe we are familiar with, which run on ontological frameworks consistent, at least for observable parts, with the mathematics we know and love.

What is it all made of? Just information that can be endlessly traced downward through infinite contextual abstractions. In the end, there are only two definitive aspects: Everything (the kaleidoscopic, crystalline pattern of patterns) and the manner by which elements abstract (which links Nothing to Anything to Everything).

Or, as some of you may recognise it, The Dust Theory. In the end, all other theories require an arbitrary contextual abacadabra.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-03-24T10:31:28.345Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

essentially, I believe in all possible things, and all entities existing in all possible contexts.

Dust Theory has a problem: there are many more possible chaotic worlds than possible ordered worlds. Therefore each conscious observer must believe that they appeared in the smallest ordered bubble that can sustain them; in other words, that the beautiful order they observe is an accident, and chaos will reach us at the speed of light any moment now. So, do you really think you will morph into a pheasant tomorrow?

comment by gort · 2010-03-24T13:44:30.491Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alternatively, the conscious observer simply interprets the surrounding chaos as ordered in some way. Despite the fact that I will be a pheasant tomorrow and I was a pushme-pullyou yesterday, I always perceive myself as the same continuous being.

Don't people actually do this anyway? It's called "storytelling": the knack for finding meaning in the random series of events that is reality.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-03-24T14:48:53.939Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is even crazier! Do you really think you weren't a human being yesterday? If yes, for Cthulhu's sake why?

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T14:04:13.118Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why would any random conscious being be formed so as to interpret its particular surrounding chaos as ordered? The theory as proposed establishes no connection between "what an agent interprets as normal" and "what an agent observes at any given instant".

comment by DanielLC · 2010-05-21T18:37:14.216Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's two possible counterarguments to this:

  1. There are many more chaotic worlds, but simple worlds will be more common within those chaotic worlds. For example, for any universe you can get another universe by adding "You turn into a pheasant", but you can also get one by adding "Universe A exists inside of it". Because the latter is presumably simpler, it will occur more often. There will also be universes that have "Universe A + you turn into a pheasant exists inside of it" but there will be more with "Universe A exists inside of it twice" and so on. In short, although virtually every universe is chaotic, most of the people living in them will be the ones living in ordered universes inside of them.

  2. The ordered universes have a higher weight. The weight decreases exponentially with the chaos, so that there's a finite probability of a finitely chaotic world.

comment by Johnicholas · 2010-03-27T19:11:04.203Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. In order to say there are "more" chaotic worlds, you have to pick a measure to put on the space of all possible worlds.
  2. If you did want to put a measure on the space of all possible worlds, nothing forces you to put more weight on the chaotic ones than the ordered ones.
  3. With a measure, you can give probabilities to things - but as you've noticed, those probabilities may not correspond to your current informal notion of probability.
comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T01:01:53.233Z · score: -4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You make a remarkably thorough case for what Mitchell Porter calls "quantum monadology"--the idea that 'consciousness' or the 'self' must be a well-defined physical entity with many degrees of freedom, and that the best candidate for such an entity is an entangled quantum state.

comment by GuySrinivasan · 2010-03-24T01:52:11.493Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't see anything in there that supports "the best candidate for such an entity is an entangled quantum state".

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T02:09:09.426Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

He doesn't support entanglement directly, but it's kind of hard to explain otherwise how an electron can have a 'tiny speck' of conscious experience, whereas an individual 'self' can have experiences which are so much more complex than an electron's. A non-entangled state would just factorize into billions of individual 'selves', each of them completely independent of any others. This does not agree with our experience of psychological processes.

comment by bogdanb · 2010-03-24T02:43:45.488Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

but it's kind of hard to explain otherwise how an electron can have a 'tiny speck' of conscious experience

[emphasis mine]

By my reading of the essay, an electron can be a “tiny speck” of consciousness, not have it. Big difference.

comment by bogus · 2010-03-24T03:25:01.623Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

not have it. Big difference.

Huh? If materialism is true and everything is matter including your conscious soul, why wouldn't an isolated[1] electron have conscious experiences? In a materialistic worldview, your soul does not have a little XML tag stating that it is a conscious entity, and neither do electrons.

[1] edited for clarity and consistency with the OP.

ETA: Just for the sake of clarity, it should be noted that emergent phenomena are just that--they can justify recurring patterns in a variety of physical systems, but they can hardly account for something as basic as our internal experiences. Especially when said emergent phenomena are merely postulated as such, with no details given and no evidence whatsoever.

comment by Jack · 2010-03-24T03:31:53.827Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your instinct that the laws of physics don't fully describe you is correct! You are the way you are because of two things:

  • the laws that describe your soul-pieces or particles, and

  • the way they're put together,

and the latter is almost unimaginably more significant!

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T14:01:32.305Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that the above was in the removed part of the article.

comment by Jack · 2010-03-24T14:12:29.799Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A shame. It was a great line.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-03-24T14:14:20.005Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would more than agree - it was part of what made it a good article. The post is much, much weaker without it.

comment by bogdanb · 2010-04-01T17:10:34.395Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Take a look at http://rendell-attic.org/gol/tm.htm

The site gives examples of Turing machines (a Universal one is included) implemented in Conway's Game of Life.

A collection of cells with a certain structure are a universal computer. This is (depending on what you mean exactly) an emergent phenomenon: no individual cell has any “small piece of universal computiness”.

They have a very short, very simple list of properties. The property of being able to compute any computable function belongs only to the system. Most arrangements of cells don’t have that property, but there are many arrangements that do.